Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Rising to the Occassion in the Midst of Tragedy

By Shawn Healy
I was interviewing for my first teaching position in the spring of 1999 when the Columbine Massacre and its aftermath gripped the nation. America's schools were no longer safe in the public's eyes as copycats and pranksters lurked in the wings, playing upon public anxieties. 24/7 news coverage brought to troubled stories of Eric Harris and Dylan Kliebold to our doorsteps, TV sets, and motem connections. Upon entering the classroom, I recall school evacuations, the temporary installation of metal detectors, prohibition of backpacks, and a host of other precautions for fear of a tragic repeat.

Although I have since left teaching for other educational pursuits, last week's massacre on the Virginia Tech campus brought back similar anxieties. Having spent more than a decade on college campuses, I am familiar with the freedom of movement at all hours that enabled a crazed killer to wreak havoc on a rustic university town. Parallels to Columbine abound, but perhaps the most striking difference from where I sit is the difference in news coverage from Day One.

While "old media" outlets staked out the same ground they did eight years ago, "new media" offerings pushed the proverbial envelope and in many cases scooped their mainstream peers. At the forefront of this coverage was student journalists. While some of them were associated with traditional venues like the campus newspaper, others relied upon cell phone cameras, web logs, and social networking sites to tell a personal story that profoundly altered their lives. Even the killer himself embraced these technologies to tell his troubled stories, ultimately forcing old media channels to consider the ethics of unleashing this incoherent rant.

While the news trucks and cameras will soon depart Blacksburg, VA, the landscape of the campus and college life in general is forever altered. While it is difficult to rescue sunlight from utter tragedy, "new media" outlets rose to the occasion thanks to the very students targeted by one of their own.


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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