Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Puppet Show or Political Theater?

By Shawn Healy
Deborah Meyer recently lost her 1st Amendment battle to retain her position as an elementary school teacher when the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled in favor of her firing. A probationary teacher in Monroe County, Indiana, Mayer acknowledged to her students in the middle of a current events discussion that she beeped her car horn when she passed a demonstration against the Iraq War where one individual held a sign that read "Honk for Peace."

While the Court acknowledged that the Iraq War "is an issue of public importance," Mayer's rights as a public employee are restricted by a series of prior rulings, and specific limits apply in the classroom as teachers must execute the curriculum established by a chain of command that begins with the school principal. The Court argues "...that teachers hire out their own speech and must provide the service for which employers are willing to pay..."

The opinion concluded with the following contention: "It is enough to hold that the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system."

While I will not quarrel with the opinion produced by the 7th Circuit as they are tasked with doing little more than applying past precedent to the facts of the case on hand, I do hope that Ms. Mayer appeals and that the Supreme Court grants cert and attends to a matter of utmost importance. Teachers are not mindless drones who operate out of a prescribed educational cookbook. They are for the most part highly-trained, yet underpaid, professionals who are fully capable of conducting themselves in a neutral fashion before students when addressing controversial subjects. Ms. Mayer's example serves to illustrate the multiple perspectives that the current conflict in Iraq extract from our citizenry. Her actions, whether right or wrong, mundane or controversial, deserve and demand constitutional protection.

On a personal level, I taught high school social studies for six years. I incorporated current events discussions into each subject to which I was assigned, from history, to economics, to government. These discussions cemented the importance of the material in the standard curriculum and allowed students to apply class principles to the real world. I encouraged students to take informed positions on these issues, but always avoided sharing my own beliefs. I chose this path not for constitutional reasons, but instead because I respected my students enough to draw their own conclusions when presented with objective information.

Some of my peers did use the classroom as a political platform, and I vehemently objected to these tendencies on pedagogical grounds. Then and now, however, I believe the First Amendment and their credentials as educators enable then to make this decision. Not a group of "concerned parents," not the students themselves, and certainly not the powers that be who spend little or no time in the classroom with tomorrow's leaders. We can only shield students from the realities of the society they will soon inhabit for so long, and we insult their intelligence when we take away their ability to make their own judgments about the political commentary and actions of their teachers.

To read the entire opinion, access the following web site and type in the docket number 06-1993. Then click "submit." The site does require free registration.


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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

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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