Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Axe Falls in Woodlan

By Shawn Healy
The fallout from the school newspaper controversy at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School outside of Ft. Wayne, IN, continues to grow as journalism teacher Amy Sorrell will apparently be fired for a list of seven grievances that includes insubordination, neglect of duties, and inability to perform her teaching responsibilities. She permitted a pro-gay editorial to run in the student paper, sparking an investigation, and the ascension of Principal Ed Yoder to the position of official censor.

The bitter irony centers on the charge of changing the curriculum without administrative approval. Instead of working on the student newspaper, Sorrell had her students study First Amendment Supreme Court cases. Imagine that in a class premised on the exercise of the same amendment!

The loser here is the student newspaper. Megan Chase, the author of the infamous article, said she probably not write again next year minus Sorrell, as Yoder's actions took the "fun" away from the process.

Sorrell has a right to call for a public hearing over her dismissal, and it appears likely she will do so. Expect Sorrell's students to rally to her cause, exercising those same five freedoms she apparently detailed in her classroom.


Freedom to Breathe?

By Shawn Healy
As I sit in front of a computer at my desk in the Tribune Tower in Chicago, I acknowledge from the outset that the content of today's posting will be subject to charges of hypocrisy, as I am a proud resident of the Second City (most of the time). We are the city that limits street vendors and musicians, bans foie gras, indoor smoking, maybe even trans fats. These qualifications aside (a city of big shoulders living in a glass house), I couldn't help but be startled from emerging news out of California this week. The San Francisco City Council banned the use of plastic bags at grocery stores, and the Mayor has pledged to sign the ordinance into law. The City of Burbank, on the other hand, wants to ban OUTDOOR smoking in a state that long ago banned puffing in indoor environments (two other CA cities have already done so).

While I applaud the spirit of both actions, I can't help but think we are rolling ever faster down this slipperly slope of eroding personal freedoms and government intrusions into all aspects of our lives. Plastic bags are certainly bad for the environment when thrown away, and I do use them twice for garbage receptacles and to bring my lunch to work, but why can't consumers themselves demand that their grocery stores abandon their use?

Moreover, as a non-smoker, I certainly enjoy the impact of the local smoking ban (yet to take effect in bars), but fear that we will head the way of Burbank. Some cities even prohibit smoking in personal cars when children are present! I acknowledge the danger of second-hand smoke, but also believe that people should be trusted to make personal decisions about their individual health. While it is probably irresponsible to smoke around children, for example, is it the right and duty of government to forbid the possibility?

We are left to ponder what may be next. Burbank and San Francisco are nearly a continent away, but the nanny state unites us all.


Closing the Curtain on Student Speech

By Shawn Healy
One week removed from the drama of the Bong Hits case, the litany of potential abuses of student speech in public schools continues. At Woodlan Junior-Senior High School 10 miles east of Ft. Wayne, IN, journalism teacher Amy Sorrell was suspended for running an editorial in the student paper penned by a sophomore that advocated for gay rights. Principal Ed Yoder has since appointed himself as "publisher" of the paper.

A play interpreting the Iraq War at Wilton (CT) High School was canceled by principal Timothy Canty under concerns about context and balance just one week prior to opening. This follows mandates to include only quotes from well-known people in the school yearbook for fear of cryptic messages, a requirement that all student posters receive adminstrative approval prior to their display, and a blanket ban on bandanas on account of gang connotations.

Such administrative actions are probably defensible under Supreme Court precedent, especially the Hazelwood case from 1988 that enabled censorship of school-sponsored publications and events for "legitimate pedagogical purpose(s)." The Morse v. Frederick (aka Bong Hits) decision may change the student speech landscape, but expect only slight alterations to this balance. Regardless, the age-old clash between students, teachers, and adminstrators continues both within and without the schoolhouse gate.


More Hits on Student Speech Case

By Shawn Healy
Tony Mauro of the First Amendment Center offers an excellent analysis of Monday's oral arguments that echo my own, but are much more extensive and articulate.

USA Today published point/ counterpoint editorials this morning, siding with student speech in the former, and allowing Kenneth Starr, the defendent's lawyer, to make a case for censoring a pro-drug message, and at a minimum, remove the principals liability from punitive damages.


Morse v. Frederick

By Shawn Healy
I've been tracking the prospects of the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case for several months on this blog, and today the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a decision that will revisit student free speech rights for the first time in 20 years. Based on the preliminary analysis of today's proceedings and my own reading of the case specifics, I would suggest that the facts support the free speech side of the argument presented by Joseph Frederick (the former Juneau-Douglas High School Student). The second question about holding the high school principle Deborah Morse responsible for damages is a closer call.

If the Court chooses to apply free speech standards in a school setting to this off-campus incident, than the more permissive Tinker standard likely applies, not the Fraser standard regulating lewd and offensive speech, nor the Hazelwood standard regulating student speech in school publications and other school-sponsored venues. The Court could shy away from the school entirely given the fact that the incident did not take place on school grounds or at a school-sponsored activity. Attendance was voluntary, and Frederick did not even attend classes beforehand (I certainly don't commend the latter). If so, free speech rights enjoyed by adults should provide Frederick (he was 18 at the time) with a decisive victory.

The Supreme Court typically issues a flurry of decisions at the conclusion of their term in June, so expect a ruling sometime between now of then, with the later option more likely.


Press Rights on a Roll

By Shawn Healy
Washington state legislation to expand student press rights, referenced in my 1.27.2007 posting, passed the House today by a vote of 57-38. It advances immediately to the State Senate, where it will likely be referred to the Judiciary Committee and allowed a public hearing. House Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, HB-1307, with Republicans unanimously opposed. Given the 35-19 Democratic advantage in the Senate, prospects of passage appear sound.

For more expansive coverage of the legislation, visit the J-Ideas web site. Also, check back here for frequent updates.


College Campus Press Act

By Shawn Healy
The Illinois House of Representatives is considering legislation that would effectively reverse the much-reviled 2005 Hosty v. Carter decsion that enabled public colleges in the three-state 7th Federal Court District to exercise prior review of student publications. The Hazelwood standard which operates at public elementary, middle, and high schools, was applied to college campuses, long-recognized as public forums.

To read more about the proposed legislation, click here. Also, check back for updates on the bill's status.

Free Speech 3.0: Student Expression in the Digital Age

By Shawn Healy
The McCormick Tribune Foundation is proud to release Free Speech 3.0: Student Expression in the Digital Age, a guidebook for students, teachers, and adminstrators to navigate the ever-complicated online world, respecting the First Amendment, while acknowledging the demands of school discipline. The guide is a product of the October 2006 Free Speech in Schools Conference held in Chicago, a collaboration of the MTF Journalism Program, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, and J-Ideas of Ball St. University. Click here to access a description of the report, along with links to downloads of an executive summary and the full report.


HB-2787 Update

By Shawn Healy
I received the following update on the progress of the bill I referenced two days ago, the Civic Education Advancement Act, from Peter Newell, the Director of Policy and Planning from Lt. Governor Pat Quinn's office:

Just wanted to update everyone that HB 2787 passed unanimously out of House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee yesterday. Special thanks go to Carolyn Pereira and Regional Supt. Marc Kiehna for taking the time to attend the hearing.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Smith and Rep. Sussi Bassi signed on as co-sponsors, and members cut our testimony short as there was widespread support for the measure, which now moves to the full House for a vote.

Technical amendments need to be made to address the deposit of $ received for the fund and the distribution of the $ among Regional Offices of Education, and we intend to tweak those issues in the coming days. Thank you to everyone for your continued support.


The Civic Education Advancement Act

By Shawn Healy
The Civic Education Advancement Act, or HB-2787, will be called by Rep. Will Davis today in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee within the Illinois House of Representatives. Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Smith and Rep. Suzanne Bassi have signed on as co-sponsors. A summary of the fact sheet that accompanies the legislation follows. Full disclosure: I am a member of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, and Carolyn Pereira, our chair, will testify on the legislation's behalf.

Civic Education and participation is a fundamental element of a healthy democracy, and schools are in need of support to identify civic learning opportunities and to implement new strategies to prepare and sustain high quality citizenship among their student body.

Civic Education Advancement Act, HB 2787

· Sponsor: Representative William Davis (D-Chicago)

· The legislation creates a Civic Education Trust Fund in the State Treasury and authorizes regional superintendents of schools to award grants ($250-$3,000) for professional development to public high schools that choose to fill out the Civic Audit.

· The Civic Audit form and its findings are to be designed, updated, and processed by the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and its members.

A Bankruptcy of Civic Knowledge

In the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test of United States history, more students scored below "basic" in history than in any other subject tested, including mathematics, science, and reading: 33% in grade 4 scored below basic; 36% in grade 8; and 57% in grade 12.

On the last NAEP civics assessment only 15% of 4th-graders were able to name two services that the government provides; just 6% of 8th-graders could describe two advantages of having a constitution; only 9% of 12th-graders could list two ways a democratic society benefits from citizen participation.

The long-term effect of neglecting this part of public education is apparent in a recent survey by the American Bar Association that revealed only 52% of adults were able to identify the three branches of government. In Illinois few schools teach about the courts. Textbooks often only give a paragraph or two to the third branch.

The last NAEP civics assessment produced scores for 12th graders below basic for 27% of Whites, 58% of African Americans, 56% of Hispanics, 34% of Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 56% of American Indians and showed that disadvantaged students were least likely to have strong civic learning experiences in school.

The Civic Audit

The Illinois Civic Mission Coalition has developed the “Civic Audit for Illinois High Schools.” The Audit, when completed, will provide teachers and principals a blueprint to better understand how current curriculum, service learning and extracurricular activities are (and are not) providing civic learning experiences for their students.

The Audit is a self-guided assessment tool that evaluates a school in six parts:

1. Formal instruction in U.S. government, history, law and democracy using interactive methods and opportunities to apply learning to “real life” situations.

2. Discussion of current events that students view as important to their lives; discussion puts formal civic instruction in context of current political and social conditions.

3. Service Learning

4. Extra-Curricular Activities

5. Student Voice in School Governance

6. Simulations of democratic processes and procedures


God Save This Honorable Court

By Shawn Healy
Judging by the comments of the newest additions to the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, the very prayer that precedes each session of oral arguments in the Court could be at stake if the decision of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is upheld in a suit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I recounted the details in Tuesday's story, and the Washington Post summarizees yesterday's proceedings in significant detail. The Court appears to be heading toward a reversal, as I count five votes opposed to providing taxpayer standing to sue for government violations of the Establishment Clause outside of the realm of Congress.

Reverse: Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Kennedy (skeptical of FFRF arguments) and Thomas (probable, but no remarks).

Uphold: Breyer (see comments in WP article), Ginsberg, Souter, and Stevens.

Stayed tuned for the Court's ultimate decision, probably in late June at the end of the 2006-2007 term.


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