Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Exit Poll Ruling in Ohio

By Shawn Healy
I wrote yesterday about the clash between the news media and state laws attempting to erase exit polls from the political landscape. In Ohio, the press won an earlier battle against a 100-foot barrier, but Secretary of State Blackwell's revisions were upheld. He prohibited loitering and delaying voters, and media organizations called for clarification. Their appeal was rejected. Interesting enough, Mr. Blackwell is running for Governor and his fate will likely be documented throughout the the day on November 7th by the same entities he battled in court. Favorable margins may have the effect of making him a stronger proponent of the First Amendment.


Exit Polls and the First Amendment

By Shawn Healy
A federal judge struck down a Florida law restricting access to voters by the media on Election Day as news affiliates conduct exit polls last week. Similar laws are enduring scrutiny elsewhere, including Ohio and Nevada. By equating exit polls with electioneering, Florida legislators infringed upon First Amendment protections. While citizens have reason to be skeptical of exit polls given their inaccuracy during the 2000 (Florida to Gore before the polls closed on the West Coast) and 2004 (Kerry leading early on due to an oversampling of Democratic voters) presidential elections, the press has an equal right to conduct, and hopefully perfect them during this election cycle and the ones to follow.


Forgot to Register? Vote Early...

By Shawn Healy
Are you an Illinois voter who missed the October 10th deadline to register to participate in the November 7th Election? The good news is that you are not our of luck...yet. Although you cannot vote at your regular polling place on Election Day or at the newly established early voting centers, you can take a trip to the office of your local election authority, or request an absentee ballot to vote by mail. This deadline expires next Thursday, five days before the election. You will also need to furnish a photo ID.

Early voting is also an option for those who have already registered. Voters in rural areas must visit the county clerk's office, but Cook County established 58 early voting locations.


Voter Excitement Level Highest in Years

By Shawn Healy
An excerpt from an October 11th AP story reveals encouraging results about voter interest in the upcoming midterm elections:

Politics is a water-cooler topic, a dinner-table subject, an issue to discuss after Sunday services, and this year the interest of American voters is at its highest level in more than a decade.

That renewed attention could translate into higher voter turnout on Nov. 7, according to an Associated Press-Pew poll.

Seventy percent say they are talking politics with family and friends, and 43 percent are debating the issues at work. Among churchgoers, 28 percent share their political views, a number that rises to 34 percent among the congregations in the South.

Americans have heard from the candidates and campaigns through phone calls, e-mail or one-on-one. In turn, they've participated more in the political process, attending campaign events, circulating petitions and making political donations.

While enthusiasm and constituent contacts don't always translate into higher turnout, they are indicators of civic engagement and the process is better for it. Here's another plug for exercising your constitutional right in a critical election facing our country in 15 days...VOTE!!!


Free Speech in Schools Conference

By Shawn Healy
The McCormick Tribune Foundation, in partnership with J-Ideas of Ball State University, held a summit on free speech in schools the past three days in Chicago. Attendees discussed the challenges and opportunities concerning the First Amendment facing students, teachers, and administrators alike in the Information Age. Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, web logs, student-led school publications, controversial t-shirts and internet filters were the media of focus.

The proceedings began with a benediction of sorts from First Amendment godfather John Seigenthaler Wednesday evening. Thursday was a busy day packed with six panel discussions and a demonstration specific to internet filtering. The day began with remarks from Mary Beth Tinker, the student who wore a black armband to her Des Moines middle school in 1965 and in the process changed the face of First Amendment law. Panelists like Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center, Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and constitutional scholar Linda Monk addressed the unique legal challenges to student speech in the digital age, connecting modern cases to the Tinker standard. An evening event at the Freedom Museum featured a performation from the Young Chicago Authors and a First Amendment film produced by Alex Caponga titled "Live Free."

Friday's conclusion focused on the practical development and implementation of First Amendment-friendly policies in our public schools, and means of disseminating the conference report and practical guide for school leaders. Participants acknowledged the dillemas teachers and adminstrators face as they seek to maintain a safe learning environment while respecting students' rights. Media literacy is of utmost concern, along with an appreciation for the First Amendment by all parties as the world changes ever rapidly around us. Watch here for future developments emerging as a result of these deliberations.


Congressional District Demographics.

By Shawn Healy
This morning's edition of USA Today has an interesting interactive feature that allows citizens to view the demographic characteristics of their congressional district, comparing median data there with national numbers. My district, the 7th in Illinois, by comparison, is more racially diverse, better educated, slightly poorer, and less apt to be married than the nation as a whole.


Teen Questioned for Online Bush Threats

By Shawn Healy
A former student of mine sent along this story. A middle school student was questioned by secret service agents for an image and message posted on her MySpace page. It depicted President Bush with a dagger through his hand and the words "Kill Bush" scrawled across the top. Although her case was eventually dismissed, it serves as an illustration of how the tools of the Information Age present new challenges for the application of the First Amendment. There are limits to free speech and expression, and this student arguably crossed the line. She did find a way to make a negative a positive, however, by creating a MySpace group to protest the war in Iraq, her true beef with Bush.

College Volunteerism Up Sharply

By Shawn Healy
Many pundits and academics in recent years have waxed about the decline on civic engagement amongst younger generations, leading Robert Putnam to conclude that we are "bowling alone" as a nation. A new survey contradicts these contentions, as college students are volunteering at significantly higher levels, a 20% increase from 2002 through 2005. Dubbed the 9-11 Generation, these students stand as a model for the restoration of civic engagment wanting across the populace. Time to commend the 3.3 million individuals who aspire to cause greater than their own personal ambition, and to follow their lead...


War on Drugs Exhibition Starts Free Speech Battle

By Shawn Healy
An October 5th article in the Chicago Tribune details the evolving free speech controversy unfolding on the grounds of the Museum of Science and Industry. Pete Guither's attempt to distribute literature contesting the content of an exhibit sponsored by the U.S. DEA was first moved outside the museum doors, then to a more remote location with little pedestrian traffic, and ultimately forbidden on the grounds of unpermitted commercial speech. The latter charge borders on the ridiculous, and our museum has decided to elicit visitor feedback on this issue in our exhibit and on Fanning the Flames. Please read the article referenced above, and respond to the following questions:

Please share your thoughts with us regarding Mr. Guither's free speech rights on the public grounds of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Should he be able to hand out pamphlets inside the exhibit, outside the museum's doors, in a location with less pedestrian traffic, or not at all? How does the First Amendment guide your reasoning?


Sitting 'em on the Bench

By Shawn Healy
I consider myself a fairly informed voter, but must admit that over the years I have struggled when it comes to judicial elections, particularly because candidates are often constrained by what they can say and promise during the course of campaigning. Two web sites were forwarded my way by the museum education staff, and are helpful in assisting Illinois and Cook County voters make informed decisions as we staff our courts. I plan to consult both prior to voting on November 7th, and hope that you'll do the same.

Illinois Voters' Guide 2006


University Instructor Likens Bush to Hitler

By Shawn Healy
Kevin Barrett's push to pin blame for the 9-11 attacks in the course he teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hits close to home for me as I stand as a proud graduate of the fine institution. While I vehemently disagree with his message and find the parallels between Nazi Germany and the contemporary United States repulsive, I support my alma matter's decision to retain him as a member of the faculty for the sake of academic freedom. Barrett's absurd beliefs deserve consideration in the marketplace of ideas, and his backhanded praise of Hitler at the expense of the current President will be shunned in the process of sifting and winnowing facilitated by the First Amendment.

CNN released a story detailing Barrett's opinions as revealed in a course packet assigned to students: University Instructor Likens Bush to Hitler.


Declare Yourself on MySpace

By Shawn Healy
Declare Yourself, a voter registration web site referenced within my 10.05.2006 post, has partnered with MySpace to further faciliate the process. MySpace users that register through Declare Yourself are rewarded with badges reading "I registered to vote on MySpace" to post on individual profile pages.


Book Banners: The Sequel

By Shawn Healy
Banned Books week ended only last week, and its importance in highlighting issues of academic freedom was only cemented by recent developments. A Georgia mom, Laura Mallory, told the State Board of Education that the Harry Potter series is an "evil" attempt to introduce the Wiccan religon to school children. This is the same school, district that eliminated funding for Spanish-language books only to do an about-face in light of persistent criticism.

The madness in Arlington Heights has now moved to cyberspace. School Board member Leslie Pinney attempted to remove nine books from the school library last May. Bruce Tincknell grabbed her baton and created a web site critical of the teaching practices, reading material, and even movies shown in district classrooms. Teachers countered with a web site of their own to defend curricular decisions. While I commend both sides for contributing to the "marketplace of ideas," I can't help but feel that academic freedom is placed in peril when parents and concerned citizens attempt to veto the classroom-level decisions of educators trained to make them based on sound pedagogy.

The most appalling story of the week concerns Banned Books Week itself. A Harrisonburg, VA, superintendent, Donald Ford, ordered the removal of a banned books display in the high school library. His rationale was wanting: "We are not going to send a message to kids encouraging them to read banned books. Our message should be to read books, a wide variety of books." While the district refused to release the list of banned books, it included Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Fahrenheit 451, Ann Frank, and The Bible. Are these the "juicy" and "controversial" titles of which he speaks? I have a better solution the next time Mr. Ford interferes with the freedom to read: Leave the books alone and send him into early retirement.


Election Day Dawns...

By Shawn Healy
Unless you live in a cocoon, you are well aware that Election Day is looming judging by the stream of negative television ads, candidates kissing babies, and desparate pleas for campaign contributions to perpetuate the cycle. Regardless of how distasteful the current political environment may be, it's our duty to carry the banner of democracy and make it to the polls on Election Day. In the midst of a protracted war on terror, a changing economic environment, and polarizing candidates and parties, our voice must resonate loud and clear as we chart the future course of this great country.

Our Programs Coordinator at the Freedom Museum, Kelli Landes, compiled a list of useful web sites that represent diverse voices, all geared toward voter registration and education.
The League of Young Voters
National Voter Fund
Illinois Ballot Integrity Project
Declare Yourself
Equip for Equality
Project Vote Smart
Illinois Campaign for Political Reform
League of Women Voters of Illinois

Additionally, Illinois voters, and those in several other states, should remember that on-site registration is prohibited. One must register one month in advance of the election, and the clock is ticking...


Schools Punishing Kids for What They Say Online

By Shawn Healy
An evolving issue in the domain of First Amendment law concerns free speech in a school setting during the Information Age. More specifically, student activity in cyberpace has come under scrutiny from administrators, school boards, state legislators, and even Congress. Social networking sites and web logs are the most prominent targets, and the tendency is to legislate and create rules for the lowest common denominator, irrespective of the First Amendment. Punitive measures are the knee-jerk reactions of adminstrators and legislators bent on resolving problems with blanket solutions that fail to address the root cause of the problem. A story in the October 1 version of the Indianapolis Star thoroughly illustrates this point.

Students' First Amendment rights do not end at the schoolhouse gate, and the ability of authorities to punish them for behavior that occurs offsite is even more nebulous. Court involvement may be necessary to restore the balance between student rights and administrative perogative, but best practice guidelines are also needed. Moreover, parents and educators alike need to teach students about the dangers lurking in the online universe, not to mention legal issues like obscenity and libel. We do students a great injustice when we cut them off from an outside world they will soon inhibit. Responsible, not restricted, internet access should stand as our societal goal.


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