Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Walking the Line in Cactus Country

By Shawn Healy
Deb Mayer's recent First Amendment battles in the classroom have been well documented on this web log (2-5 and 2-20 posts), but the war over political speech espoused by teachers in our nation's public schools rages on. The Arizona Senate is considering a bill that would prohibit an instructor from endorsing a political candidate or from taking one side or the other on a controversial political issue.

While some fear that the bill could stifle discussion of any political issues, its sponsors suggest that it only dictates a position of neutrality on such touchy topics. Others argue that the bill is overly broad in scope and its spirit is already achieved through local policies (Ms. Mayer's case apparently cements this point).

As a former educator I recognize the power of teaching controversial issues in the classroom. Students are naturally interested in such tension, and teachers must show sensitivity when turning to these topics given the heterogeneity of their pupils in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, class, etc. Moreover, given the fact that students are in formative stage of development intellectually, balance is a must. There are, however, several ways of achieving this outcome.

1. Present both sides of an argument and ask students to weigh in with the position they find most appropriate.

2. Play devil's advocate, sensing the majority sentiment in the class and portraying the opposite.

3. Balance a viewpoint espoused in class with source material (op-ed pieces, film clips, political speech excerpts, etc) that draws an opposite conclusion.

4. Facilitate a class debate where students espouse their own personal beliefs.

5. Conduct a similar debate, but assign students to particular positions beforehand.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, some of these techniques could be precluded by the aforementioned Arizona legislation. I used each approach at different times during my career to various degrees of success, and wonder if further intrusion into the pedagogical methods of educators is the most productive use of political time and effort.


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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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