The 2017 Jefferson Muzzles awards have been announced and Illinois has earned a spot on the list. Each year on their namesake’s April 13 birthday, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression awards this dubious recognition to the year’s most egregious free speech censors. Past recipients include the Bradley County, Tennessee sheriff’s department, for deleting atheist comments from their Facebook page; the Obama Administration and BP, for preventing media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon fiasco; and, a personal favorite, the Texas State Legislature for denying tax breaks to movie producers if their films portrayed Texas in a “negative fashion.” Who would do such a thing?
This is not the first time that Illinois has made the list. In 2015, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis took a top spot after insisting police pursue a man who had created a parody Twitter account under the alias @peoriamayor. Unamused by the sophomoric humor, Peoria officials had difficulty finding a suitable criminal charge that would enable Mayor Ardis to shut down the offending Tweeter. Their struggle perhaps isn’t such a surprise given that the 1A protects satire – a frustrating constitutional quirk for elected officials, as our newest president has observed during many a SNL-fueled late-night Twitter binge.
Peoria prosecutors eventually leveraged a statute that criminalizes the impersonation of a public official and subpoenaed Twitter and Comcast for the man’s personal information. In short order, they raided his home, arrested his hapless roommate for possessing marijuana, seized the household’s four computers, four iPhones, iPad and two Xboxes, and took the Tweeter into custody (albeit briefly). The problem with their strategy? The impersonation statute doesn’t apply to internet activity. The city settled the resulting lawsuit for a payment of $125,000 to the happy defendant.
This year’s award is similarly impressive. In a move that stunned everyone familiar with the contemporary definition of “politician”, the State Government of Illinois earned the 2017 Muzzle for banning political contributions by medical marijuana businesses. Strangely, no effort was made to ban contributions by financial services companies, predatory lenders, investment bankers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, military contractors or any of the myriad other industries and interests wreaking havoc on the principles of democratic representation – but that’s a topic for another time.
Fortunately, the federal courts stepped in (thank you, life tenure) and struck the statute. Pot producers, let the lobbying begin!