Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


new hope in oregon

By scipio191
From Warren Watson

The Supreme Court is once again playing keepaway with the U.S. Constitution, reducing the First Amendment rights of our sons and daughters in a quirky case that threatens to create a less-democratic environment in our public schools.

A divided U.S. Supreme Court, in Morse v. Frederick, a case involving a cryptic student banner (and labeled as “oddball” by The New York Times), last month whittled away at 38 years of legal precedent and further restricted the First Amendment rights of our students.

The 5-4 decision, marked by angry rhetoric on both sides of the issue, represented another aberration from 1969 when the high court boldly proclaimed in Tinker v. Des Moines that there should be no age restrictions when it comes to free speech and that student First Amendment rights don’t stop at the schoolhouse gate.

Over the last 19 years, the Republican-influenced court has told our students their speech must be civil at all times (Bethel vs. Fraser, 1986). They have told students that their newspapers are subject to arbitrary censorship by their principals (Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, 1988). Now, in the latest case, dubbed “Bong Hits 4 Jesus, the Supreme Court has told students they are prohibited from speech that might – just might -- be construed as advocating drug use.

Yes, sad times for those who believe that there should be no age limits on free speech, the most important plank in the structure of our Constitution.

And, if the court’s whittlers have their way, free speech will be taken away altogether.

Clarence Thomas, the conservative jurist, said “it cannot seriously be suggested that the First Amendment freedom of speech encompasses a student’s right to speak in public schools.” He talked about the old days when “teachers commanded and students obeyed.”

Such blunderbuss.

Thank goodness many of the nation’s newspapers, bloggers and commentators believe the court – at least Thomas – has overreached this time.

But real optimism that this court activity may be checked sooner rather later comes from the West Coast – in Oregon. Hope will radiate from the Oregon state house on Friday (July 13) when Gov. Ted Kulongoski is expected to sign a historic law guaranteeing free-expression rights to the state’s high school and college journalists.
Oregon is a small state, but the law is a start, trumping most of the high court’s abuses – at least in that state. It shows that not all citizens believe in the ways of the Roberts Supreme Court. In fact, six other states already have such laws and others are being considered in a wide variety of states, including Vermont, Michigan, North Carolina and Indiana. If written broadly enough in the future, these state laws will effectively negate the Supreme Court’s efforts to strip away free speech for our young citizens.

First Amendment and civics advocates see the law as significant and one that might jump-start those similar efforts. In Michigan, a free-expression bill received a big boost earlier this week with the endorsement by the Detroit Free Press, the state’s largest newspaper.

There is further optimism from academia. The president of a major Midwest university has spoken out against the censorship of student journalists at a high school near Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jo Ann Gora, Ball State’s president, called the muzzling and discipline of a .teacher – Amy Sorrell – a “dark cloud” over the school “Strangely,” Gora said, “her (Sorrell) belief in the importance of promoting tolerance led to her punishment.”

Bad news. Good news. Such is the tenuous world of the First Amendment in a society bending to the right on the national stage.

The young minds of today’s students are shaped by dialogue and ideas and viewpoints and facts and critical thinking. Kids learn by studying and debating. Young minds must be exposed to an open forum of ideas and issues.

This is how democracy works. This is why students must enjoy the same First Amendment protection as their mothers and fathers.

Yes, a young mind is like a parachute. It functions fully and properly only when it’s open.

Warren Watson is director of J-Ideas, a First Amendment institute in the Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Information and Media at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. J-Ideas supports excellence in student journalism, First Amendment awareness and news literacy.


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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