Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


No Reception for Immaculate Conception

By Shawn Healy
The Mayor's Office of Special Events in Chicago turned down an offer from New Line Cinema to sponsor Christkindlmarket to the tune of $12,000 in exchange for an on-site screening of "The Nativity Story." The office first suggested the film would prove "insensitive to people of different faiths," but later changed its tune, merely objecting to the "blatant commercial message."

Culture warriors are certain to be up in arms in what they see as a battlefield in the annual "War on Christmas." The extent to which religious displays in the public square pass First Amendment tests is contextual and thus a few details are necessary before we discuss court precedents.

Christkindlmarket is organized annually by the German American Chamber of Commerce, held at Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago, and literally means "Christ child market." A gigantic Christmas tree illuminated by Mayor Daley punctuates the plaza of the same name, and is accompanied by a Nativity scene, a giant menorah, and a Muslim crescent. The market itself sells a variety of food and trinkets and has been in operation for 11 years, attracting an average of 1 million visitors over the course of a month.

Two Supreme Court cases inform us relative to the constitutionality of a nativity scene and probably a film depicting the birth of Christ. The Court allowed Pawtucket, Rhode Island to maintain its Nativity scene accompanied by Santa Claus's house, a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and a Christmas tree in the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly. Even though the city owned all elements of the display, the Court found no violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The city merely intended to celebrate a national holiday and show its historic origins.

The picture grows murkier in the 1989 case County of Allegheny v. ACLU. A Nativity scene placed in the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh was deemed in violation of the Establishment Clause, while a menorah outside the doors of the City-County Building a block away was not. The latter was displayed alongside a Christmas tree and accompanied by a sign proclaiming "Salute to Liberty." Justice Blackmun reached this conclusion amongst a divided Court, claiming the menorah was situated with secular symbols, and is used by non-practicing Jews as a symbol of the holiday season in line with the Christmas tree, not to mention its framing beneath an umbrella of religious liberty identified by the banner. The Nativity scene, on the other hand, was isolated, clearly represents a religious message, and thus stood in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Given the context of Christkindlmarket, one would assume that the Lynch v. Donnelly precedent prevails given a mix of secular and religious symbols more diverse than the two cases cited. A screening of "The Nativity Story" would only add to this mix, and 24 other cities apparently arrived at this conclusion. Los Angeles, for example, incorporated the film into its tree lighting ceremony.

Moreover, the film seems to have an overt tie to the history of the event, "Christ Child Market." The city's excessive commercialism argument appears hypocritical given the "MARKET" on the site it already enables. It's clear that the city's fear of offending non-Christians is "much ado about nothing," and the opportunity cost of this spineless response is $12,000 and a free movie for Chicagoans.


Borat and the Limits of Free Expression

By Dave A
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I took some time to do what millions of Americans did, other than shop, and went to see Borat, the parody film about the television reporter from Kazakhstan who visits America. Rather than bore you with a long run-up, I'll cut right to the chase: I, and my date, left about 40 minutes into the film (and it was a unanimous decision). I found insufficient redeeming social value to justify my time investment.

Now, for those of you who think I'm stodgy, I would disagree. I often think of myself as too base in my sense of humor. I loved American Pie (my favorite line being..."oh, Stiffler's Mom") and I can't get enough of the pop-culture disaster that is the first few episodes of each season's American Idol. Part of my brain is, admittedly, still stuck on the male sophomoric humor that finds value in bathroom jokes. Also, to the extent it lends credibility to this argument, I love sports and don't think it important to see all (any?) of the films that have been nominated by for Academy Awards. It would seem that despite being 38 years old, I should find some value in Borat. Instead, I found it to be obnoxious, offensive and hurtful in a way that didn't even remotely justify the small amount of the humor I found in the first 40 minutes.

My chief objection lies with the underlying principal of making fun of people in a hurtful and disrespectful way. I understand the need to catch some participants unaware (the older man at the rodeo talking about terrorists and mustaches was priceless) so they would be honest but too often it was done in a cheap way to get a laugh at someone's expense (the dinner party and the bed & breakfast come to mind). I'll embrace humor when it isn't at someone's expense but when it is, I find it hurtful and unworthy of my attention. If one can excuse that behavior, then we could move on to the scene of the running of the Jew and the killing of the Jew egg. I understand that it was done to parody people who think that way but I think there is a world of difference between that message and the many messages Mel Brooks shared with us in Blazing Saddles. Brooks was able to identify racist / sexist sentiment but he didn't do it cheaply, he didn't leave a humorless wake of offensiveness and incivility when he made his point. People laughed but they laughed at the silliness of the underlying sentiment and how it was presented, not just the absurd presentation.

The title of this blog suggests that perhaps Borat goes too far and isn't entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Well, that was a set up. However stodgy you think I might be, my last proof to you that I'm not is that I do think the First Amendment protects this nonsense, though I hope that common sense and taste will encourage self censorship. I wish I had my $30 back and hadn't rewarded the producers and been counted among those who have seen it.


Your Faith, My Freedom

By Shawn Healy
The first two clauses of the First Amendment that constitute religious liberty are often in tension. The Establishment Clause prohibits government sponsorship of religion, while the Free Exercise clause restricts government interference in practice of one's faith. Sometimes the two are in tension with one another. The holiday season brings these issues to light on a daily basis, but such controversies abound throughout the calendar year.

The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum just opened a temporary exhibit titled "Your Faith, My Freedom." Making its debut on November 18th during the annual Festival of Lights and running through January 31st, the exhibit explores 24 controversies involving issues of religious liberty that occurred across the country during the last calendar year.

Presented in a timeline format beginning in September 2005 and running through August 2006, 6 of the most prominent cases are featured in detailed descriptions with accompanying photos and primary documents. Among them are the Dover intelligent design trial and verdict, Brittany McComb's censored and aborted graduation speech, and a cross on city property in San Diego honoring the fallen soldiers of the Korean War.

Visitors have an opportunity to examine related documents like the text of McComb's speech or the Supreme Court opinion in a case involving a religious sect's right to consume sacramental tea classified as an illegal narcotic. They are later invited to leave comments in reaction to each case. For those who are unable to visit us during this time period, the exhibit is featured on our web site. Here you will find an expanded description of each of the 24 cases referenced in the exhibit, along with images that correspond with twelve of the cases.


Capitalism and Freedom

By Shawn Healy
It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of my intellectual hero, Milton Friedman, last Thursday. Two of his books, Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and Free to Choose (1980), contributed greatly to our belief in free markets as a precondition for political liberty. Other ideas, like school choice and partially privatized social security are just now coming into vogue.

Wherever one stands on the ideological continuum, Friedman's shunning of conventional wisdom and ability to think outside the box is to be commended. His offerings went from "far out" to "mainstream" over the course of his lifetime, and his legacy will live long after he departed the world he influenced so profoundly. Friedman's ability to communicate with non-economists cemented his legacy, speaking and writing in a style that made complex and bold ideas logical, offering common sense solutions to problems we face on a daily basis.

His central thesis in Capitalism and Freedom was that capitalism was the most efficient means of operating an economy. Within this model, producers and consumers are provided with a myriad of choices in each market transaction. Ultimimately, such choices will be desired in the political world, meaning that capitalism and freedom go hand-in-hand. China's experience over the last three decades is a fitting illustration.

Steve Chapman and Robert Samuelson offer fitting tributes to this intellectual giant and one of the three most influential economists of the 20th Century (Keynes and Galbraith are the others). Current policies and proposals modeled after his teachings are representative of the justice through free markets he so tirelessly advocated.


Youth Movement

By Shawn Healy
We've heard for decades about the relative apathy exhibited by the youngest voting demographic in American elections, the 18-29 age group. Preliminary reports in this morning's Washington Post via the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (a mouthful otherwise known as CIRCLE) suggests an increase of 2 million voters of this age group flocking to the polls last Tuesday in comparison to 2002. More importantly, their votes probably affected the outcome, resulting in a sea change of congressional leadership. 61% of this demographic voted for Democratic candidates.

Overall turnout for the 18-29 bracket registered a rather dismal 24% (up from 20% in 2002). A great deal of emphasis has been placed on mobilizing young people, and early evidence suggests that peer-to-peer interaction is most effective. Hard work lies ahead as we incorporate tomorrow's leaders in the political process. Let's hope these trends continue as the nation gears up for a pivotal presidential election in 2008.


Celebrate the Season

By Nathan

The holiday season is upon us. No, I'm not referring to those the frenzied days of parties and piling on credit card debt. It's the season--the six-week span from early November to mid-December-- that reminds us exactly of what it means to be an American. Perhaps at no other time of the year do we spend as much time reflecting on and participating in our democracy.

The season commences in early November with a pilgrimage to the polls to anoint our chosen leaders and repudiate those who have lead us astray. Like a secular confessional, we enter the voting booth, weigh critical decisions and unload our conscience. Afterwards, we celebrate--or mourn--and chart our national course for the coming year. On November 11, Veterans Day--the day that was intended to mark the cessation of the War to End All Wars--we acknowledge that grim irony and honor those who have laid down their lives to defend our nation. The fourth Thursday of the month, we gather on Thanksgiving Day with family and friends to show gratitude, honor the sacrifices of our ancestors, and celebrate the remarkable, if not controversial establishment of our culture in North America. On December 7, we mark the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We remember that there are those who would seek to destroy our way of life and recognize the need to be vigilant in protecting it. Finally, the season culminates with Bill of Rights Day on December 15. Here, we remember the sacred ideals of America—to believe, to associate, to live as our consciences dictate and that those freedoms are endowed to us not by kings or presidents, but by nature.

I that we can all spend some time in the coming weeks to reflect on the blessings and costs of liberty. Here's to a great season and happy holidays!


Freedom of Speech?

By Shawn Healy
Only for those whom I agree with... That's the consensus that has taken hold on college campuses across America, and apparently on the other side of the pond too. College campuses have stood historically as bastions of liberalism, and the epicenter of the free speech movement(Cal-Berkeley). Despite past victories, modern activists have too often operated under a double standard when it comes to speech, particularly when universities invite guest speakers with a conservative perspective.

One need look no further than the melee at Columbia University early last month when a leader of the Minutemen Militia was silenced by more than verbal barbs, but physical obstruction. I witnessed similar intolerance for viewpoints that conflicted with mainstream liberalism throughout my academic career.

1. David Horowitz interrupted throughout a 2002 speech at the University of Illinois at Chicago by members of the student Socialist Party.

2. Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition, shouted down by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

3. A similar performance with protesters literally bused in to obstruct a speech by Ward Connerly, former California Regent, and an African-American who opposes affirmative action.

College should be a time when our worldview is consistenty challenged by perspectivies different from our own. In my experience, this only serves to strengthen our own convictions and to better articulate our values. Moreover, occasionally we encounter information that forces us to re-examine our worldviews and adopt alternative viewpoints. Such reflection is a component of academic growth. Institutions and student bodies who fail to embark in this process short-change themselves and our society. Intolerance from all directions can only be defeated with more speech, not less.


Library Closings Cause for Concern

By Shawn Healy
Last month, over lunch at a local watering hole, I was bothered by the revelation that all Environmental Protection Agency libraries would close in the near future, a product of budget cuts and an effort to digitize all agency documents. The news startled me because I read nothing about this development in the mainstream papers. If not for the tireless advocacy of Judith Krug, the 40-year veteran of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, I would probably still be oblivious to this development.

Moreover, the scant mention of these closings I have since encountered fail to get to the root of the problem. How can we be certain that the EPA will make all of its documents available over the Internet in a timely manner? What if I have difficulty navigating the site and locating the documents I seek? Will telephone operators have the competence of trained librarians? The answers, I speculate, are as follows: "we can't," "tough luck," and "absolutely not."

What if this trend trickles into other domains, jeopardizing public libraries more generally? Academic freedom is the loser in the case of the EPA and other attempts to close these worthy public institutions with talented, helpful librarians. Thankfully, a group of Senators has requested a delay in library closings allowing for public commentary. Let's hope their request is granted, and respond by raising our voices about an issue of universal importance.

I Voted...

By Shawn Healy
...Did You? It's not too late. Polls are open in Illinois until 7pm. Be sure to look at both sides of the ballot, for in addition to seated judges there are three referenda, one related to an assault weapon ban and another a minimum wage hike (the third advises a withdrawal from Iraq). To find your polling place in Chicago click here, or in Cook County click here.


Sifting Through an Election Gone to the Gutter

By Shawn Healy
Given the dearth of positive messages offered by candidates across the political spectrum this election season it has become difficult to make choices beyond determining which candidates are the lesser of two (or more) evils. We certainly have enough reasons not to vote for all of the above, but this election is too critical to sit out given the ballooning budget deficit, broken entitlement programs, and a mismanaged war in Iraq.

As voters we are wanting for non-partisan evaluations of candidate positions, and thankfully Vote Smart has definitively answered the bell by surveying individual candidates and recording their responses (scroll down to National Political Awareness Test Results). Candidates are listed by state, then by level of office (state or federal). Gubernatorial candidates have their own listing. Be wary of those candidates who refused to submit answers in a campaign where voters should demand them...


If I See One More Negative Campaign Ad...

By Shawn Healy
Actually, I don't have much of a problem with negative advertising, mostly because it's effective and supported by the First Amendment. Although campaign finance laws have muddied the picture, political speech is afforded strict scrutiny by our courts, for the First Amendment was drafted specifically for this purpose.

It is in this context that I view the recent uproar over an ad that ran in the Tennessee Senate race connecting Rep. Harold Ford, an African-American, with a white woman at a Playboy party. It was attacked immediately from all directions, including his opponent, Republican Bob Corker. The sponsor of the spot, the Republican National Committee, pulled it shortly thereafter.

Steve Chapman is right on in his argument that levity is needed in a campaign lacking in creativity, where candidates either present themselves as choir boys or tar and feather their opponents as common criminals who steal from the public coffer. In an election season where we are once again forced to choose between the lesser of two evils (if we choose at all), a fictional candidate, Josh Jennings, stands as an appealing alternative. Check out these campaign commercials starring Mike Mauloff and co-created and edited by Nathan Gotsch. Should we send him to Congress or continue his service as a sandwich artist?


Exit Poll Tidal Wave

By Shawn Healy
Nevada has joined the mix of states where exit polls barriers were struck down on constitutional grounds, the tenth victory for media organizations since challenges began in the 1990's.


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