Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


By Shawn Healy
Half-Priced Books assembled a user-friendly and interactive web site in conjection with Banned Books Awareness Week. The most compelling feature is a scrolling bar of controversial titles where the visitor can click on a book and read a short explanation of why it was challenged at one or many locales in the United States. Other educational resources pertinent to the subject are available, including podcasts and quotes from notable dignitaries. The site also invites visitor feedback in the form of blog entries about banned books.

The site can be accessed by clicking on the following link:


First Amendment Case Accepted by the Supreme Court

By Shawn Healy
The Supreme Court added a case with First Amendment implications to their docket for the coming 2006-2007 term set to begin on Monday. At issue is whether or not a state, Washington in this case, may require labor unions to receive the express consent of a non-union employee in order to use their dues for political purposes. The Court has affirmed the right of unions to collect dues from non-members because the collective bargaining practices benefit the employee nonetheless. A 1977 case mandated an op-out provision for dues allocated to political activities, but this presently occurs after the fact and not beforehand.

The First Amendment issues in question here are two-sided. The plaintiffs, five Washington teachers and the state itself, equate union dues allocated to political activities with speech. The union could potentially spend money on a cause or candidate that an individual teacher did not support. The defendant, the Washington Education Association, argues that the state law requiring the opt-in provision interferes with union's freedom to associate, disrupting the balance between non-members' rights and those of the union.

These two stories provide more elaborate details about the case:
1. Justices to Decide on Use of Union Dues for Politics, Washington Post.

2. First Amendment Case on Court Docket, First Amendment Center.


Banned Books Week

By Shawn Healy
September 23-30 commemorates the 25th anniversary of Banned Books Week, a time to raise awareness of book challenges across the country. Sponsored by the American Library Association, it raises awareness of the First Amendment issues surrounding the freedom to read as academic liberty is continually placed in peril by a small cadre of school administrators, school board members, and concerned parents to name a few.

This issue hit close to home this past spring as a school board member in Arlington Heights, Illinois, attempted to remove nine books from the library collection of Township High School District 214. Leslie Pinney cited sexual content, language, and violence as the source of her ire, but even the best-selling Freakanomics made her hit list. The authors' statistical correlation between legalized abortion and falling crime rates apparently contradicted her worldview and the district's students should therefore be shielded from such scholarship.

Why not subject her viewpoint and that of Steven Leavitt (co-author of Freakanomics) to the marketplace of ideas, where students themselves can weigh multiple perspectives and decide what constitutes the truth? Recent scholarship has emerged to contradict Leavitt's findings, and who is to say that an Arlington Heights student might not be inspired to do the same after encountering these arguments?

As citizens we have a duty to stand tall for academic freedom. Oppose book challenges in your community even when you disagree vehemently with the author, for the slippery slope may also threaten the titles you hold dear. Read controversial books to expand your worldview. Encourage your children to to consult a similarly diverse literary selection. Join the ALA in celebrating Banned Books Week.


Student Media Literacy

By Shawn Healy
Part 2 of the follow-up survey (see post on 9/19) commissioned by the Knight Foundation was released this morning with a focus on student media literacy in the Information Age. The data reported is mildly encouraging, as more than half of high school students access the Internet at least once weekly to monitor the news. Top sources include news feeds offered by Google and Yahoo, national television news web sites, and local newspapers. Web blogs registered a close fourth. Traditional media rated highest in terms of credibility, as television news and daily papers far outdistanced Internet news sources and web blogs. However, nearly half of all student supplement these sources with entertainment news options like the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and even South Park.

The most concerning data relates to the 49% of students who fail to monitor the news even once a week, including 29% who never tap into media sources for this purpose. Reading behind these numbers, there may be additional evidence of the so-called "digital divide," where some students have access to the Internet at both home and school, while others our locked out of the Information Age. Apathy is another concern, where in the words of Neil Postman, we are "amusing ourselves to death" through entertainment options and completely ignoring the events taking place in the "real world." Clearly there is work to be done on both fronts.

To access the study click on the following link: Future of the First Amendment Follow-Up Study, Part II.


Panel Debates Internet Freedoms

By Shawn Healy
Last evening I participated as a panelist in a Constitution Day program at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I was joined by an Indianapolis television station manager, a sociology professor, and the student editor of the Ball State Daily News. We discussed emergent First Amendment issues in the Information Age, with a specific focus on social networking sites and web logs. A review of the evening's events can be found at the following link: Panel Debates Internet Freedoms.

Updated First Amendment Study Released

By Shawn Healy
The Knight Foundation released a follow-up study to their 2004 Future of the First Amendment report yesterday. In the last two years, classroom instruction of First Amendment principles has increased, while student attitudes toward the five freedoms have become more polarized. While more students stand against prior review of student newspaper articles, as a whole they are increasingly apt to think the First Amendment protections are overly broad.

Teachers remain frustrated by the state of First Amendment instruction in classrooms across America, and we at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum hope to fill this gap through school visits to our facility, the availability of First Amendment related curriculum on our web site (bound copies for teachers who register field trips), and our state-of-the-art web site (

For more information on the Knight study please visit the following link: Teens Learning and Challenging First Amendment Values.


Celebrate Constitution Day

By Shawn Healy
Regardless of where we stand as Americans in relation to the war on terrorism, our world changed fundamentally on September 11, 2001. Age-old legal constructs were and continue to be tested as the nation assumes a war footing against an enemy larger than any one country. These debates all fall beneath the umbrella of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The Bush Administration authorized the secret wiretapping of domestic phone calls to investigate terrorist threats shortly after the 9-11 attacks. The program's revelation prompted a series of legal challenges from citizens and Congress, alleging a violation of one's right to privacy implied by the Fourth Amendment and other selected amendments. Congress and the courts will likely have the final word, looking to the past and our original documents and applying them to our changing world.

In a related development, the First Amendment freedom of the press has come under intense scrutiny in light of revelations of White House programs like domestic wiretapping, the monitoring of international financial transactions, and secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. What are the limits on press freedom during times of war? Does the revelation of secret government programs jeopardize national security or embolden the populace to hold elected officials accountable for potential violations of civil liberties? Administration officials and select members of Congress have since rebuked these reporters and the newspapers who employ them, but shades of grey remain.

The United States Supreme Court concluded their recent term by issuing the Hamdan decision. A 5-4 majority deemed the Bush Administration's program of detaining enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay with a plan to try them before military commissions lacking the range of protections extended to defendants in civilian courts a breach of the separation of powers doctrine defined in the Constitution in 1787. The President arguably usurped congressional authority in the area of war powers and due process of law.

This debate and others endure in changing times as Americans attempt in the words of the Constitution's Preamble to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. " Each generation is charged with the task of acknowledging, treasuring, and defending the Constitution, for freedom mandates responsibility, a fulfillment of the social contract signed on September 17th.

Our continuous consent to this contract requires us to travel to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and to immerse ourselves in the debates of the delegates over the structure of our national government that perseveres to this day. Fifty-five men from all of the original thirteen states but Rhode Island met from May 25th through September 17th to draft the United States Constitution, our second government charter after the failed Articles of Confederation. It was here that the framers struggled with the notion of a balance of power between three separate branches of government, the shared military authority between Congress and the President, and a Supreme Court that would interpret the meaning of this document across time.

September 17th is significant because it commemorates the day when thirty-nine men placed their names on the final document and sent it to Congress to facilitate the ratification process. Congress submitted the Constitution to the states eleven days later, and each called special conventions for the purpose of consenting to a social contract with "We the People." Delaware was the first state to climb aboard on December 7, 1787, and New Hampshire became the requisite ninth state to ratify on June 21, 1788. The consent of Virginia and New York, the nation's most populous states at the time, was deemed essential to legitimize the document, and a series of opinion-editorial pieces known as the Federalist Papers written under the pseudonym of Publius appeared in major dailies urging ratification. They succeeded by June 26, 1788, but heeded the calls of opponents in these states and others to add a bill of rights to the document as soon as the First Congress assumed office.

Virginia Congressman James Madison, credited as the architect of the Constitution and one of three authors of the Federalist Papers, embraced the task of drafting what became the Bill of Rights, proposing twelve amendments to the original document from the plethora of recommendations stemming from state ratifying conventions. The first two amendments were not ratified immediately, but the subsequent ten formed what we call the Bill of Rights, and were formally added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.

The brilliance of this document and its recipient amendments is its flexibility across time, establishing formalized structures through which we can debate contemporary controversies, pass legislation and spur executive action, protect individual liberties, and modify its meaning to correct debilitating defects. Recent events have only cemented this notion.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at