Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Standing Alone

By Shawn Healy
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday in favor of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the case Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation. The case itself considered the issue of taxpayer standing as it relates to Establishment Clause challenges to program's like the Bush Administration's faith-based initiatives stemming solely from an executive order and not congressional statute. Had the Court ruled for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, taxpayers would have standing to sue on First Amendment grounds executive branch programs that violate the "no establishment" premise of the religious freedom clauses.

Prior precedent, namely the 1968 case Flast v. Cohen, permitted taxpayer challenges for congressional appropriations of tax dollars for religious purposes that may violate the Establishment Clause. Justice Samuel Alito, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, claimed the mere fact that executive branch allocates taxpayer dollars appropriated by Congress does not make them one in the same. Lacking any direct congressional relationship to the faith-based initiative, Alito claims that Flast's narrow exception cannot be stretched to produce an "actual case and controversy."

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas in a concurring opinion, signs on to the judgement issued by the majority, but would overturn Flast v. Cohen in the process. Scalia feels that the Supreme Court overstepped its bounds in Flast, violating the separation of powers doctrine embedded in the Constitution and specifically the defined boundaries of the judicial branch as established in Article III.

The liberal bloc of Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer coalesced around the minority opinion where they would extend Flast to executive branch allocations of taxpayer dollars. Souter, writing for the minority, failed to see a "distinction in either logic or precedent" from congressional appropriations or an outcome where "taxpayers have any less at stake."

The case admittedly is not among the most glamorous of the slew of First Amendment decisions forthcoming from the Court the past couple of weeks, although it does fit into a general pattern of a 5-4 majority surrounding a conservative position. The "Bong Hits" and campaign finance (more on this tomorrow) decisions stole the headlines, but all three were decided by the same five justices: Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito. The Bush appointees have clearly swung the Court to the right, and Justice Kennedy's position as the swing vote also trends the same direction given his more conservative orientation in comparison to his former centrist compatriot Sandra Day O'Connor.

While the Roberts Court seemingly has a mixed record on free speech after two terms, its two religion decisions have permitted greater freedom of religious expression and more entanglement between government and faith-based organizations. These two decisions seemingly stand as open invitations for additional challenges to the Warren Court and its successors to chip away at the so-called "wall of separation" between church and state.


Student Speech Takes Another Hit?

By Shawn Healy
The long-anticipated "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" decision was unveiled by the Supreme Court this morning alongside two other First Amendment cases (taxpayer standing on Establishment Clause cases, issue advocacy ads during political campaigns, analysis to follow later this week). The 5-4 decision appears on the surface as a setback for student speech as the Court ruled that the principal, Deborah Morse, did not violate Joseph Frederick's First Amendment rights when she punished him for unfurling the now infamous banner. As a result, she is not responsible for compensatory damages. Moreover, in addition to the lewd and obscene speech prohibited by the 1986 Fraser decision, Morse v. Frederick extends to speech that promotes drug usage among students.

Justice Roberts, joined by his four conservative counterparts (Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito), held that "schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can be reasonably regarded as encouraging illegal drug use." He took special care to establish Morse's jurisdiction in this specific context, and neither of the dissenting opinions challenged the Chief Justice on these grounds. "School was in session," and the event, an Olympic Torch Relay, was an "approved school event or class trip." Students were permitted to leave class and watch the event on either side of the street. Teachers and administrators monitored student behavior, and Frederick, although tardy, joined his fellow students on the side of the street opposite the school. The banner itself "was easily readable by the students on the other side of the street."

For his actions Frederick was suspended for 10 days (later reduced to 8 upon appeal), and the Superintendent ruled that his statement was not political, but "potentially disruptive to the event and clearly disruptive of and inconsistent with the school's educational mission to educate students about the dangers of illegal drugs and to discourage their use."

The Supreme Court deemed "reasonable" Morse's determination that Frederick's message might be interpreted by his fellow students as promoting illegal drug use. The majority then proceeded to couch this decision within the context of previous rulings, namely the material and substantial disruption exception of Tinker, the dual principles of Fraser that diminish students' rights in a school setting and its recipient limits on Tinker, both of which were reinforced in Kuhlmeier.

They proceeded to reference a slew of student drug cases, cementing the fact that curtailing drug use among students is a "compelling interest." In the end, "The First Amendment does not require schools to tolerate at school events student expression that contributes to those dangers."

Justice Thomas concurred with the majority opinion, but also called for overturning Tinker, "suggesting that the First Amendment does not protect student speech in public schools." He admits that the Court created another exception to Tinker in today's decision, but fails to "offer an explanation of when it operates and when it does not." As an result, Thomas fears "that our jurisprudence now says that students have a right to speak in schools except when they don't..."

Justice Alito, joined by Justice Kennedy, limits the impact of the majority opinion, joining Roberts only so far as to limit speech "advocating illegal drug use" and disallowing limits on speech "commenting on any political or social issue," including marijuana legalization. They view drug-related speech as a student safety issue for which schools have a responsibility in protecting.

Justice Breyer, in dissent, would offer Morse qualified immunity based on the facts of the case, but go no further in making a determination of whether or not her actions violated Frederick's First Amendment rights.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Souter and Justice Ginsberg, echoes Breyer, but would not punish Frederick for "his attempt to make an ambiguous statement to a television audience simply because it contained an oblique reference to drugs." The majority decision, according to Stevens, "does serious violence to the First Amendment" by enabling punishment for a message with which the school disagrees. In the end, "This is a nonsense message, not advocacy."

As a former teacher my collective experiences suggest that the practical impact of this decision is likely minimal. For example, when students wear t-shirts to school promoting alcohol or drug use (a beer logo is often sufficient) they are regularly asked to change shirts, turn it inside-out, or asked to return home for more appropriate attire. Moreover, Alito's concurring opinion seemingly limits the extension of a slippery slope toward regulation of substantive social and political issues (dissent of the Iraq War, for example).

The decision is by no means reason to celebrate, however. If Tinker was the pinnacle for student speech rights, the downward slide that began with Fraser and continued with Kuhlmeier shows no signs of slowing, much less restoration. It places further discretion in the hands of teachers and administrators to regulate student speech, and promises even more litigation.

It also sends the wrong message to tomorrow's leaders. High school students are on the verge of entering the adult world. Indeed, in many ways they are already members through work, relationships, even economic obligations. How can we expect them to contribute to a national political dialogue if we restrict and shield them from the real world discourse unfolding outside the schoolhouse gate?


First Amendment Flagged

By Shawn Healy
The Supreme Court yesterday, in another unanimous First Amendment decision, ruled that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (a state actor according to a separate 2001 decision) did not violate the First Amendment rights of Brentwood Academy's football coach who mailed recruiting letters to prospective players prior to their matriculation.

Justice Stevens, joined in judgement by his eight peers, but limited by the five conservatives through concurring opinions, said that because Brentwood joined the TSSAA voluntarily, some standards restricting free speech are permissible, this one seeking to level the playing field for other high schools, particularly public ones competing against a perennial contender.

Concurring opinions by Justices Kennedy and Thomas arguably limit the scope of the decision's First Amendment impact, applying it largely to the specific context of this case. The conservative majority (Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts, Scalia, and Alito), in an ironic twist of fate, seems to be evolving into staunch defenders of freedom of speech. This formula will be tested in the next week when the Bong Hits 4 Jesus decision is unveiled.


Extra! Extra! Student Press Bill Passes in Oregon.

By Shawn Healy
HB-3279, state legislation to enhance student press rights at the high school and college levels, was passed this afternoon by the Oregon House of Representatives. They reconciled differences between the earlier bill passed by the body (5.16.2007 post) and the Senate version. The Governor is expected to sign the bill into law in the next few weeks, and when the ink dries, Oregon will the the seventh state to successfully pass similar legislation and the first since Arkansas in 1995.

Earlier efforts were in direct response to the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) decision that enabled administrative censorship of school-sponsored vehicles that feature student speech (newspapers, musicals, graduation ceremonies, etc.). Hosty v. Carter (2005) applied this precedent to college students in the three-state region of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. By refusing to hear this case on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the 7th District Court of Appeals decision to stand, frightening free press advocates and practitioners on college campuses across America, and igniting legislative efforts in California and Illinois to strengthen collegiate press rights.

Washington State's failed efforts last spring would have protected press rights for high school and collegiate newspapers (3.13.2007 and 1.27.2007 posts, and its chief sponsor has vowed to renew this battle during the next legislative session.

J-Ideas Director Warren Watson celebrated today's triumph. The veteran journalist proclaimed, "This is an important day for all who care about the First Amendment and youth journalism. It's been more than a decade since we've had a public-policy victory such as this. Many states have failed in their attempts to legislate true First Amendment protection for youth journalists."

Watson's organization played a critical role in the bill's ultimate passage, applying lessons learned from the Oregon defeat. Mark Goodman, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, praised J-Ideas and touted the breakthrough: "After 12 years since Arkansas, it's great to (almost) have another law on the books!"


Dues Decision

By Shawn Healy
The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously today in favor of non-union member teachers in the State of Washington in the case Davenport et al. v. Washington Education Association. The case considered a state law (since modified) that essentially enabled teachers who were compelled to pay union dues even though they were not a member of the union to decide beforehand whether the portion of their dues devoted to political causes would reside in the union's pocket or their own. Voters in the State of Washington approved the scheme, different from that employed in other states where teachers must request refunds of dues used for political purposes from each funding entity after making the initial contribution.

Both sides made a 1st Amendment argument in the case. The non-union teachers saw compelled confiscation of their salary for purposes to which they did not approve an infringement on their free speech rights. The union itself argued that their associational rights were undermined by a law that restricted access to dues previously protected by Supreme Court precedent. The rationale here is that non-members benefit from the efforts of their union and thus cannot free ride on the contributions of their peers.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, rejected the union's argument: "The notion that this modest limitation upon an extraordinary benefit violates the First Amendment is, to say the least, counterintuitive." The reasoning, according to Scalia, rests on the premise that "...unions have no constitutional entitlement to the fees of nonmember-employees."

Further dismissing the union's argument. Scalia held, "the contention that this amounts to unconstitutional content-based discrimination is off the mark." In sum, the Court does "...not believe that the voters of Washington impermissibly distorted the marketplace of ideas when they placed a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral limitation on the state's general authorization allowing public-sector unions to acquire and spend the money of government employees." The voters instead "sought to protect the integrity of the election process."

Justice Breyer (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito) wrote a concurring opinion in agreement with the outcome and most of Scalia's opinion absent a few technicalities.

The impact of the decision may be blunted by the fact that Washington modified its law since the advent of the case. It could, however, invite other states to enact similar legislation. As a former teacher who often sought the return of my union dues used for political purposes, I can attest to the fact that it is a cumbersome and elongated process. A check-off provision like that previously adopted in Washington would address this inconvenience while at the same time retaining the collective-bargaining integrity of the teacher unions.


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...Unless You're Illegal?

By Shawn Healy
Last evening, the Freedom Museum, in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, conducted a public program considering the rights of illegal immigrants to the United States. Ric Estrada, the Executive Director of Erie Neighborhood House, moderated the debate between Susan Gzesh, Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, and Jim Oberweis, Illinois entrepreneur and former candidate for U.S. Senate and Illinois Governor.

Estrada began the evening by posing questions to the two participants, and they alternately presented their dichotomous positions in a civilized, respectful manner, even seeking agreement when the opportunity presented itself. Gzesh began by pointing out the fact that the U.S. Bill of Rights is largely a list of negative rights that cannot be taken away by our government as opposed to the more positive granting of rights achieved by the Human Declaration of Human Rights. Although the Supreme Court has established an affirmative right for all residents of the United States, both legal and illegal, to attend public schools, and non-discrimination is strongly protected by statute and precedent, basic human services like health care are not guaranteed.

Oberweis emphasized the fact that immigration is a privilege, not a right, and argued that those who break U.S. laws should abide by the consequences. Moreover, access to human services described by Gzesh is a costly manifestation of immigration.

Localities such as Hazelton, PA, and Carpentersville, IL, have taken it upon themselves to craft ordinances meant to address the "abdication" of responsibility by the federal government in regulating immigration. Oberweis emphasized the right of cities and states to act in this vacuum. They may pass ordinances and laws dealing with immigration that go as far as and not further than federal law unless otherwise prohibited. He predicted that we should expect more cities to follow the footsteps of Hazelton and Carpentersville.

Gzesh countered by arguing that in many cities and towns across the U.S. Latinos are a majority of local populations, but do not constitute a majority of the electorate. The anti-immigrant laws that emerge from these locales are attributed to economic insecurities among the population and a political agenda targeting illegal immigrants. She argues that the jury is still out on the economic impact of illegal immigration, and advises against states adopting their own immigration laws.

Gzesh suggests that our societal obligation to illegal immigrants is not legal but instead moral. Acknowledging that our current laws are ineffective, she asked, "How do we want to position ourselves as a nation?"

Oberweis pointed to the fact that 5 billion people worldwide live in worse economic conditions that the average Mexican, suggesting that the latter have no more of a right to live here than the former. The implications of such mass emigration to the U.S. would be staggering, he suggests, and the current entry of 1 million immigrants each year is at a rate 4 times higher than the historic average.

Estrada turned to the assembled audience of more than 80 for questions directed toward the participants, although several injected their own viewpoints and experiences along the way. One teacher, for example, lamented about students of immigrant parents who needed eye glasses to succeed in school, but without health care or the economic self-sufficiency to meet these needs.

Oberweis suggested that the immigration issue has two major components, a national security dimension, and the practical matter of what to do with 12-20 million illegal immigrants currently residing on U.S. soil. Gzesh agreed that registration of existing illegal immigrants is critical to national security, but condemned the recent raids on employers hiring illegals. Oberweis, on the other hand, wants existing laws on employers enforced.

Neither participant is a fan of the current legislation under consideration in the Senate. Oberweis would like the border fortified before addressing a guest worker program and considering amnesty for those illegal immigrants already here. He argued, "Let's fix the leak, then properly bail water."

Gzesh opposes the change to the point system applied to legal immigrants. The Senate legislation would place greater weight on job skills than family reunification, a "dramatic" change to a system in place for more than four decades.

An audience member suggested that the current immigration debate carried a racial overtone. He pointed to Oberweis and argued that his position might be different if today's immigrants shared his skin color. Oberweis flatly rejected this assertion, claiming that his tough stance against illegal immigration has nothing to do with race. Gzesh, on the other hand, while not directly confronting Oberweis on this matter, highlighted the racial connotations of historic immigration debates and pointed to parallels with the current standoff.

In the end, the audience was treated to a vigorous exchange between two knowledgeable participants and an informed moderator. Many were provided with a platform to air their concerns and questions, and both sides of this thorny issue fracturing traditional ideological alliances were subjected to the scrutiny of the entire assembled group.


The College Campus Press Act - Another Victory for the First Amendment

By Riley Roberts
In a unanimous vote Friday, the Illinois Senate ratified legislation that guarantees freedom of the press for student publications at the college level. This action came on the heels of a 112-2 vote in the House, sending the bill to Governor Blagojevich's desk, where it awaits his signature or veto. If signed into law, the measure would prevent college administrators across the state from censoring student newspapers, requiring approval to publish controversial content, or otherwise controlling such publications.

The bill was inspired by an incident involving student journalists at Governors State University, where presses were halted by a dean because the paper ran stories critical of the school's administration. Alarmed at this infraction of their First Amendment rights, three students filed suit, but when the Supreme Court refused to hear their case, the Illinois General Assembly took action instead. California lawmakers recently enacted a similar bill, and with such broad support in both houses of the Illinois legislature, it's almost certain that the governor will approve the measure.

As a student journalist for The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this legislation strikes a particularly strong chord with me. Having experienced the contentious atmosphere surrounding issues like U of I's Chief Illiniwek and my newspaper's infamous decision to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed, I understand the potency of the press on a college campus. As with the professional media, it is the role of any school's newspaper to air all legitimate viewpoints - those deemed unpopular and those who question or otherwise oppose school officials are no exception.

But why does it matter? So what if college papers are subject to censorship, so long as their professional counterparts are not? These are just students we're talking about, after all, and some of the hot-button issues that campus newspapers wade into can spark significant debate. Such issues are best left to "legitimate" media outlets, as they might have the potential to distract from the education that's supposed to be going on at our colleges and universities. Right?

I don't think so. For the most part, students who report for their campus news organizations harbor at least some interest in journalism as a career. For these individuals, researching and writing stories for the campus paper is some of the most valuable training they'll ever receive. All of these students will develop habits, techniques and reporting skills that will serve them well into adulthood. How can we expect to breed good journalistic habits if we quash every impulse that sends young minds chasing after divisive or controversial stories? How, once they graduate, can these journalists ask tough questions of public officials and pursue difficult leads if they are never allowed to do so as students?

One old argument states that school newspapers, since they generally receive funding from their host institutions (public or private), are beholden to the wishes of those institutions. (NOTE: While this is true for many publications, it is not true of The Daily Illini specifically, as we are published by the Illini Media Company, which is wholly independent of the University.) Even when a paper is University-funded, however, its freedom should not be abridged. Especially in those cases, the paper can serve as a check against the administration, running critical stories and opinions in order to keep watch over the people entrusted with spending the students' - and/or the state's - money.

Another argument in favor of censorship might be the fact that some issues, when discussed in the school paper, can boil over into the classroom and disrupt ordinary instruction. This is indisputably true - over the past couple of years, I've seen it happen a number of times on the U of I campus. Chief Illiniwek's retirement sparked protests and candlelight vigils, and the D.I.'s coverage of these events got everybody involved - editorials and letters to the editor further divided an already fractured campus. Racial tensions came to a height after our paper (and even national media outlets) picked up a story about a "Tacos and Tequila"-themed party. This sparked demonstrations, a few instances of vandalism, and a campus-wide forum convened by administrators and designed to diffuse these problems. Most famously, during my freshman year, two employees of the paper decided to print a number of cartoons (originally published in Denmark) that had stirred up controversy and caused violent protests all over the world. This decision received national attention, incensed a number of student groups, and even made some reporters afraid that our newsroom would be attacked.

In each of these cases, a University-controlled paper would've carefully sculpted its coverage of the event in question, echoing the administration's position on every issue and shying away from reporting that might incite further controversy. It is likely that such censorship would have resulted in less disruption of ordinary campus life, but it also would have done nothing to encourage the type of debate, critical thinking and engagement that is so valuable in any educational setting. Classroom instruction may be disrupted by noisy protests fueled by an independent newspaper, to be sure - but I contend that there's a good deal of college education that occurs outside the classroom, and of this the paper is an essential component.

In college (and sometimes in spite of college), we learn to live independently, to think for ourselves, and we develop a sense of personal judgment. Essentially, it's "real life" with training wheels. A censored school newspaper, in some ways, certainly ensures a more stable college experience, but it also guarantees a more sheltered existence.

Throughout our college lives, we should be challenging ourselves, opening our minds to new beliefs at the same time that we learn to defend those that come under attack by others. We must learn to deal with difficult problems, engaging in meaningful debate and facing issues that make us uncomfortable.

These harsh realities can be erased from our headlines as undergraduates, but once the "training wheels" come off, we will need to know how to deal with them as adults, whether we like it or not. A free student press can help to train the journalists of tomorrow, encouraging the independence and the desire for accountability that is so valuable in the national media. A free student press can instill the kind of informed engagement and democratic citizenship that is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And perhaps most importantly, a free student press can help us to develop as intellectuals and as people, educating in a way that is seldom possible in any college classroom.

The Illinois General Assembly has taken steps to ensure that these essential rights receive the protection they deserve under Illinois law. Hopefully, more and more states will soon follow in their footsteps.


Iran: Democracy Rising?

By Riley Roberts
Iran, it seems, is always in the news. Between the capture of 19 British sailors earlier this year, unwelcome tidings of a persistent nuclear program, and fiery quotes from their hard-line conservative leader, the headlines are difficult to ignore.

Last night, the Freedom Museum hosted another "Table of Nations" event designed to explore the past, present, and future of the country (and the people) behind the headlines. At Reza's Restaurant - another of Chicago's wonderfully diverse dining establishments - experts, guests and museum staff feasted on traditional Persian fare and a wealth of fascinating information. The setting was intimate, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was ripe for riveting debate.

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Hamid Akbari, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, author, and leading expert on Iran. He began the evening's program with a brief introduction that praised the Museum's mission as "unique to Chicago and the world," and then set the stage for the speakers that followed. First to step to the microphone was Stephen Kinzer, longtime correspondent for the New York Times and author of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and Roots of Middle East Terror.

Kinzer spoke at length about the history of Iran, particularly as related to an ongoing internal struggle for democracy. He shed light on the roots of that struggle, describing the early establishment of democratic rule in Iran and then the derailment of that system by a coup executed by the United States in the 1950s. Since then, although Iranian regimes have been opaque, oppressive and opposed to change, the spirit of democracy has lived on in its people; although they do not live under democracy, unlike many in the region they know what it looks like.

"Democracy is not an election," Kinzer said. "It's a whole way of looking at life. Iran has been on a journey to democracy for more than 100 years . . . and what they really want is the one they had 50 years ago."

Next to address the crowd was Janet Afary, another prominent author on Iran and a professor at Purdue University. She provided what she called a "micro history of democracy" within the country, specifically delving deep into women's rights and marriage customs as they have changed over the years. Dating has arrived on the Iranian scene, she said, and traditional practices such as arranged marriage and the authoritarian family structure are falling away. Unfortunately, the suicide rate among married women is high, divorce would be widespread if it was more legally accessible, and drug addiction and running away from home are far more common than they used to be.

Despite these problems, more women than ever are attending college and getting what jobs there are to be had. Unemployment rates remain high and Iranian laws are
extremely backwards, however - these two roadblocks must be overcome if the balance of power is to shift in favor of democracy.

Ario Mashayekhi, a renowned human rights artist, gave one of the most interesting talks of the evening, displaying and describing three of his unfinished paintings. Exile, Hope and Bloom, the three beautiful works he brought from his studio, explore the despair, sadness, and optimism that can be found in Iran, each work having been inspired by a different incident or experience. All three presented poignant, luminous visions of the humanity behind the much-vilified Islamic Republic. Mashayekhi's insights helped to shed light on the Iranian situation in a unique way.

Closing out the evening's program was Danny Postel, a journalist and author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran. Postel described the historic moment at which we find ourselves today in relation to Iran: just this year, after 28 years of complete diplomatic silence, the U.S. and Iran sat down and spoke to each other. Additionally, the movement for democracy within Iran is strengthening every day - as one independent music promoter put it, "it's like a chick bursting from an eggshell - people are pushing from inside, and that shell is getting thinner and thinner." Postel argued that the best thing the U.S. can do to encourage the democratic movement is nothing - threatening to attack Iran only strengthens the oppressive regime.

"The moment that first bomb drops on Iran, it would spell the end of the vibrant democratic struggle that is growing as we speak," he said.

Postel went so far as to argue that President Bush is in a symbiotic dance with Tehran - that each needs the other as an enemy. As long as the U.S. continues saber-rattling, he said, democracy will stall, but if America takes no action, "that shell will keep getting thinner and thinner."

Following a brief question-and-answer period and after dessert was enjoyed by all, the evening was at an end and everyone went their separate ways. It was an extremely interesting program, showcasing unique points of view that are not always heard, especially at the national level of the foreign policy debate.

The only major criticism that I have relates to the fact that all of the speakers hit more or less the same notes: while each examined a different aspect of Iranian history, life or politics, all seemed to agree on the current situation in Iran and the course of action that must now be taken by the United States. For the sake of balance and to provoke further debate, it might have been nice to showcase a dissenting voice as well, allowing for the interplay of a more diverse range of ideas. Even without such a voice, however, our panelists demonstrated a keen understanding of the issues they discussed, a passionate flair for their fields of study, and an enthusiasm for public debate that was refreshing to see.

In all, "Iran: Democracy Rising" was a resounding success, creating an intriguing public forum for discussion of freedom and foreign policy and also encouraging interaction with a few of this country's preeminent Iran scholars. It was a thought-provoking evening, and it allowed for exactly the type of issue-related engagement that is too often absent from civic life in this country. I can't wait to attend the next "Table of Nations."


Why Iowa Matters

By Shawn Healy
I spent the past three days attending a reporting institute in Des Moines, IA, executed by the Poynter Institute in conjunction with Drake University and underwritten by the McCormick Tribune Foundation's journalism program. The institute addressed the challenge of covering the presidential nominating process for all media outlets, national and local, print, broadcast, even the Internet. The context was the first in the nation Iowa Caucuses, a landmark political occasion every four years since the surprise victory of an obscure Georgia Governor (Jimmy Carter) 31 years ago. Several observations are worth noting, both about the Caucuses and the media's coverage of them.

1. Iowans (at least the Caucus attendees) take their responsibility seriously. Caucus going is no casual affair. It's a 2-2.5 hour commitment on a cold Monday evening in January. Democratic Party participants engage in a verbal and physical display of their commitment to a candidate. If their candidate of choice does not meet the 15% threshold at any given caucus, attendees are subject to persuasion by devotees to more popular candidates. Participants also engage in determining the party platform for the coming election, and delegates must carry these preferences to countywide, congressional district, and statewide gatherings as the winter yields to spring and summer. Politics in Iowa is an ongoing commitment, and voters separate the wheat from the chafe through a lengthy vetting process well underway seven months in advance of D-Day.

2. The media faces a variety of challenges, from uncooperative campaigns to marginal candidates to redundant messages from the candidates themselves. Some are aware of a perceived liberal bias that permeates the media and take proactive measures to ensure objectivity. Others fail on this mark, challenging conservative candidates while lobbing softballs to their liberal counterparts.

The media as a whole faces resource constraints. While the number of reporters covering a campaign shrinks, the campaigns themselves are devoting an ever increasing percentage of resources to interacting with and at times manipulating the press (this too works both ways). As Internet coverage blossoms, reporters are asked to perform their old jobs along with commenting on blogs, recording audio and video snippets, and are thus pulled away from covering candidates as they engage in the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire. This leaves much of the on-the-ground coverage to local reporters and news outlets. I met several of them in Iowa and saw in them the idealism and talent wanting of reporters who play the dual role of gatekeepers and watchdogs.

3. Iowa plays an unquestionably disproportionate role in determining the major party nominees for President. The state is not representative of the nation as a whole. It's the 4th whitest and 3rd oldest. The majority of caucus goers are over the age of 55! Only 250,000 of 2 million Iowans registered to vote actually participate, this figure then divided by the two parties. Candidates spend an unreal amount of time in the state (John Edwards has been there roughly 2 dozen times since the last election), and with this comes financial resources.

The August Straw Poll in Ames, for example, is seen as an early indication of support for GOP candidates even though its mostly a sham of the campaign paying supporters to buy straws. Frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain saw through the facade this time around and withdrew from the poll. As a result, they stand in contrast to conventional wisdom should they overcome current Iowa poll leader Mitt Romney and win the Caucuses.

On a deeper level, whether or not we are satisfied with this year's frontloaded primary process with small, unrepresentative states setting the tone, it's the reality with which we operate as voters. The nominating process will be effectively complete three weeks after the Iowa Caucuses on February 5th (big states like California, New York, and Illinois hold primaries this day, with Florida the week before on January 29th), and the long march to November will commence with the victors raising even more money to lampoon one another. As voters, we'll pick up the pieces and ask our leaders, and the media that covers them, for something better.


Retail Politics in New Hampshire

By Shawn Healy
The eight Democratic candidates for President gathered last evening in Goffstown, NH, at St. Anselm College to engage in a spirited two-hour debate. The first half was dedicated to the standard give-and-take between CNN pundit and moderator Wolf Blitzer and the candidates, while the latter half transitioned into a more informal question-and-answer session with the audience. The ten GOP candidates (with Fred Thompson still on the sidelines) will reprise this production at the same venue tomorrow evening.

The debate centered once again on the Iraq War with John Edwards attempting to differentiate himself from the two other front runners, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama, by criticizing the two of them for their failure to speak out during the recent Senate debate over funding for the conflict. Obama snapped back that Edwards should have led four years ago when he voted to authorize the war, and Clinton held her centrist ground, later dismissing Edwards' contention that the war on terrror was little more than a slogan on a bumper sticker.

As for the rest of the pack, Senator Joe Biden and Governor Bill Richardson were sporadically impressive, but the bulk of the debate centered on the Big Three. Senator Chris Dodd suffered through an uneven performance after two stellar opening acts, and former Senator Mike Gravel and Representative Dennis Kucinich continued to serve as sideshows to the main act.

The larger question continues to be whether or not American voters (short of the attendees in NH) are paying attention to this ongoing discourse at such an early juncture. With the prospect of the nominating process being effectively over by February 5th, we cannot afford to tune out until the calendar turns to 2008.

Moreover, the media's early crowning of front runners and dismissal of potential dark horses fails to do justice to what is the first open race for President since 1952 (neither an incumbent President or VP vying for the office). The Fourth Estate's excessive emphasis on polling data that reveals little more than name recognition and fundraising prowess (an indication of Rolodex size) masks the substantive debate that is occurring on a number of levels in both parties.

While the Democrats debate their alternative to the Bush presidency's war on terror and place forward the most electable female, African-American, and Latino candidate to date, the GOP field grapples with the Iraqi quagmire, the prospect of nominating a pro-choice and pro-gay candidate, and the potential of fielding the first Mormon candidate for President. Important issues like health care, global warming, poverty, and immigration are also on the docket.

As the summer wind blows in warm weather, we must keep our collective eye on the ball, demanding more of our media and the candidates. The stakes couldn't be higher as we near a pivotal election. This race to the White House is a marathon and demands endurance by all parties to the contest. An occasional break is acceptable, but we must all meet at the finish line and accept the ultimate outcome.


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