Muzzled: Censorship award in TJ's backyard

The 13th awarding of the Muzzles was unlucky 13 for Albemarle County. It's the first time the community that lives and breathes Jefferson received the dubious honor of the censorship award.

Each year on TJ's birthday, April 13, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression recognizes "ridiculous or egregious affronts" to free expression with its Jefferson Muzzles.

The Albemarle County School Board put TJ's hometown on the Muzzles map "for refusing to acknowledge a mistake" when a sixth-grade student at the middle school named for Revolutionary War patriot Jack Jouett was forced to wear a t-shirt inside out because it depicted firearms.

In 2002, an assistant principal forced then 12-year-old Alan Newsom to wear his NRA Shooting Sports Camp t-shirt inside out– even though the school's written dress code policy did not prohibit wearing clothing that depicted weapons.

"The thing that struck us about this case was that it was most easily avoided by the recognition a mistake had been made and by an apology," says the Thomas Jefferson Center's Josh Wheeler. "It would have avoided the entire incident."

Newsom and his father, with the help of the NRA, sued the school board for $150,000. In December 2003, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary injunction, finding that Jouett's dress code policy was "unconstitutionally overbroad," and in January, the court refused to hear Albemarle's appeal.

The court noted that the policy's ban on all images of weapons would have prohibited Virginia's state seal with a goddess holding a spear, or even the sword logo of UVA's Cavaliers. Through mediation, the county and the Newsoms reached a settlement that was itself muzzled.

"Having one's mistakes pointed out can be a terrific learning experience," says Alan's father, Fred Newsom. "I hope that's what this is."

The Thomas Jefferson Center acknowledges the difficulty public school administrators face in preventing disruptions, but warns, "Such discretion is not absolute."

The center also urges, "When an error is made in applying a dress code policy, it should be acknowledged rather than defended as a legitimate exercise of school authority."

"Do I think the school board is getting a bum rap?" asks Albemarle deputy attorney Mark Trank. "I do."

In a letter to the Jefferson Center, Trank calls the Muzzle award "unfair and unwarranted." He maintains that the school board has done nothing to violate Alan Newsom's constitutional rights.

"The board does not agree it made a mistake, nor does it believe the administrator did," Trank tells the Hook.

He also points out that the school board's settlement with Newsom contains no provision for an apology.

At press time, Sue Friedman was the only Albemarle School Board member who returned phone calls from the Hook requesting comment on its Muzzle– and she declined to comment. School board chair Diantha McKeel designated Trank her spokesman.

Open-government fan Gary Grant was not so reticent. "Hurray," says Grant upon hearing of the award. "Finally." As a former member of the school board, Grant was named in the Newsoms' suit.

Albemarle was not the only school system with t-shirt troubles. Another Muzzle winner, Michigan's Dearborn High School, sent home a student who was wearing a shirt featuring a picture of President Bush with the words, "International Terrorist."

Free expression in school attire is an issue unlikely to go away anytime soon. More than 80 Lynchburg students recently wore Confederate flag t-shirts to protest a high school principal's decision to suspend 15 students and force others to change because the clothing caused a disruption, according to the Associated Press.

Alan Newsom's lawsuit against the Albemarle County School Board over his right to wear an NRA t-shirt earns the board a 2004 Jefferson Muzzle award.