Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Road to the White House

By Shawn Healy
The title of the latest lesson plan designed by the Freedom Museum education staff, a simulation of the Presidential election. Designed for middle and high school students, this lesson plan seeks to illuminate an increasingly murky political process by assisting students with candidate research, followed by a step-by-step walk-through of both the primary and general election season, highlighted by role plays of the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary, a simulation of Tsunami Tuesday, and a demonstration of the inner workings of the infamous Electoral College.

The lesson folds out into a map perfect for any classroom wall that illustrates the lengthy process that begins on a cold January night in Iowa and culminates with Election Day on November 4, 2008. Oh, I almost forgot--it continues with members of the Electoral College voting on December 15th, followed by Inauguration Day on January 20, 2009.

We are hopeful that this election offers educators another one of those teachable moments, indeed many of them, for the elongated process requires persistent attention and thus explanation. It was our intention to provide teachers with the tools to make this happen, helping tomorrow's voters transcend political rhetoric, to engage in civil discourse with their peers and fellow citizens, and in turn become active participants in the election process.

To obtain a copy of the lesson for use in your classroom, please email our education staff at, or click here for a downloadable version of the document.


Banned Books Readout

By Shawn Healy
Just in time for the American Library Association's Banned Books Week (Sept. 29-Oct. 6), parents at a Southwest Side Chicago public school, John H. Kinzie Elementary School, are calling for the removal of The Chocolate War, required reading for 7th graders. Robert Cormier's tome is a frequent visitor on the ALA's top-ten most frequently challenged books list, residing at #10 in 2006.

Book challenges are of course nothing new and fit perfectly in the context of the broader culture wars. The Chocolate War is controversial because of fowl language, portrayal of masturbation, and violence, but other challenges center on homosexuality and the presentation of political opinions that at least one squeaky wheel finds objectionable. Freedom to petition the government, or in this case public school administrators, is of course protected by the First Amendment. That said, librarians have broad leeway in constructing a collection for their schools, as they seek volumes to contribute to the broader curriculum. The Supreme Court has made it very difficult to remove books once they are already part of a school library collection.

This case, of course, centers on a book required by the curriculum, not a voluntary alternative in the library stacks. Schools offer often students of parents who object to a required book an alternative, but Kinzie is standing its ground. Principal Sean Egan wrote, "This book was selected for the very important, complex themes it covers, including conformity and the ethical implications of choices we make..." He continued, "A few students have objected to the contents of the book, which addresses mature themes and contains some swearing. Decisions regarding the content of a school's curriculum, however, lie with its educators and administrators."

Kudos to Principal Egan and his staff for standing up for academic freedom. In this spirit, the ALA, in partnership with the Newberry Library and the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, will host a Banned Books Readout this Saturday in Pioneer Court adjacent to the Tribune Tower from 1-4pm. Authors of controversial and challenged books will be on hand to discuss their content and read freely from their pages, including Chris Crutcher, Robie Harris, Carolyn Mackler, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Peter Parnell, Sonya Sones, Marilyn Reynolds, and Justin Richardson. Interspersed between these readings will be performances of challenged songs by the Old Town School of Folk Music and theatrical readings by the City Lit Theater Company.

Admission is free, and guests will be provided with a button inscribed with the slogan, "I Read Banned Books." The Freedom Museum will honor all visitors who enter wearing this pin with complimentary admission throughout the rest of the day. The museum closes at 6pm. (For a more elaborate discussion of the event, click here to watch my interview with Judy Krug, Director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, on CAN-TV)

Back to Cormier. Although not much of a fiction connoisseur myself, I actually read The Chocolate War with a group of special needs students during my training to be a teacher at a high school in the Madison (WI) area. Honestly, nothing in the short, but powerful narrative even caused me to blink an eye. I thought it was an accurate depiction of the struggles that young boys face in an environment filled with peer-pressure, with parallels to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

The the case of Kinzie Elementary, parental objections are coming from parents of students who will not even read the book! Instead, they fear that the contents of the book will be discussed outside of class, as students parlay the content and language to their younger peers. While I certainly don't condone the use of vulgar language, I do feel that we do children a great injustice when we shield them from the realities of the world. Moreover, we should be so lucky if students discussed class materials after the bell rings.

Cormier has since passed, but he left us with volumes of realistic portrayals of the complex world that our children inhabit. Please stand with us during Banned Books Week, attend the Readout, and support the legacy of Cormier and others, upholding academic freedom through these troubled times.


Tuned Out

By Shawn Healy
You've listened to my lamentations about the lack of youth awareness of, and passion for the First Amendment, and our constitutional rights more broadly. This was in evidence once more on Monday in a Constitution Day panel I moderated. Although generally well-attended, the goal of the program was a attract a younger audience by addressing issues of direct relevance to them. We succeeded with the latter, even including a student on the panel, but failed miserably with the latter. Unfortunately, Monday Night Football, and all of the other entertainment options we compete with for the public's attention, kept local students in the dorms.

Our charge lives on nonetheless. My congratulations to Marcia McConnell and Syvia Tillman of the Homewood-Flossmoor branch of the Illinois League of Women Voters for assembling a wonderful tribute to the most important of days.


Iraq: What Next?

By Shawn Healy
I attended a luncheon yesterday sponsored by the National Strategy Forum titled "Iraq: What Next?" General Dave Grange, the President and CEO of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, gave the keynote speech, and he drew upon his extensive reading and conference attendance, weekly conference calls with the Defense and State departments, and constant contact with commanders on the ground in Iraq and those just returning to provide an assessment of the status quo in the aftermath of last week's report to Congress by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.

Grange highlighted the limited progress in Iraq 4 and 1/2 years after the conflict began, citing the death of nearly 4,000 American soldiers and thousands maimed, along with the loss of treasure, as frustrating variables given the apparent stalemate. Moreover, only 8 of the 18 benchmarks have been met in terms of political and military progress, with the former a major disappointment.

He emphasized the strategic interest that the United States has in the region, and made a case for our continued presence there in the months and years ahead. Of interest is the region' s oil, locus of international terrorism, proximity to Iran, and location of adversaries (state and non-state).

Grange argued that our lack of unity at home is the biggest obstacle to success in Iraq, and that the "Washington clock" is driving the outcome, not Petraeus or Crocker. He lamented the fact that our nation is not at war, only our military. Moreover, the U.S has failed to achieve its mission thus far due to its initial failure to understand the Iraqi terrain and consolidate power during the first two years of the war.

That said, Grange claims that the surge is working, for it is necessary to secure Iraqi neighborhoods to gain the confidence of the people. Also, although body counts are poor measures of progress, many of al Qaeda's leaders have been killed or captured. Some have criticized recent cooperation with the enemy on this front, but Grange disagrees, for it has allowed the capture of more dangerous elements and has forced al Qaeda to scatter.

Admittedly, success to date is more of a "mosaic," but bottom-up leadership is improving, along with infrastructure where it can be protected. Grange cautioned us that violence from the enemy is not necessarily a sign of strength, but instead a response to coalition gains to regain credibility with the population.

Despite these notable achievements, concerns linger, including the slow progress of Iraq's security force whose loyalty is to their individual sects and not the nation as a whole. The U.S. Army has been worn down, both its troops and equipment. We need to prepare for other potential conflicts, transform our military into a 21st Century fighting force, and take care of soldiers' families. A more manageable rotation cycle is also wanting and will be mandatory come next summer.

In the end, Grange suggests that the rationale for the war is irrelevant at this juncture. We are responsible for the current situation in Iraq, and we alone decide when the battle is lost. Al Qaeda sees Iraq as the central battleground in their quest for global domination, and we must maintain a regional perspective as we debate the merits of withdrawal. Suggestions of the latter are counterproductive, the General argues, for the Iraqi population must therefore hedge their bets in case of a swift American departure. Moreover, talk of an immediate withdrawal is impractical given the 1o months it would take for the safe exit of just half of our forces.

Grange contends that we must leave a government that represents the people of Iraq, and a security force that protects them. A transition plan for the next presidential administration is also necessary, as out commitment will last long beyond January 2009. That said, the General argues that we should make it clear that our presence in Iraq isn't permanent. Ambassador Crocker should make his case to the American people detailing our 5-10 year plan in the region, beginning with a deliberative withdrawal plan (no public disclosure of dates, however), a plan to pull our troops back to the Iraqi borders ("overwatch capability"), and a training plan for Iraqi security forces.

Additionally, we should exploit our successes against al Qaeda and prevent further exploitation of the Sunni-Shiite divide. Containment of Iranian expansion is also critical, along with a contingency for a "soft" partition of Iraq. Political reconciliation is necessary for success in Iraq, and our military's presence is buying time for this.

Grange's address was well-received by the assembled audience, and it's hard to argue with a man of such stature, experience, and wisdom. His non-partisan analysis was a welcome reprieve from the partisan jockeying in Washington and on the campaign trail. Congress, the President, and those who seek his job would be wise to listen to patriots like General Grange as they make decisions that will define the ultimate outcome in this great test of the American spirit.


Just in Time

By Shawn Healy
Happy Constitution Day to one and all! With that greeting comes word of more apathy and ignorance amongst our young people when it comes to this precious document, and specifically the First Amendment's five freedoms. The Knight Foundation released its 2007 Follow-Up Survey on the Future of the First Amendment today.

It begins by suggesting that in spite of Senator Byrd's best efforts, Constitution Day is little more than an afterthought for most schools. More than half of high school students have never heard of the national holiday, and merely 1 in 10 recall how their school celebrated it last year despite a federal mandate.

More specific to the First Amendment, teachers claim their schools are making some (55%) or a lot (8%) of efforts to promote the five freedoms. Despite increased concentration on this subject in classrooms (68% of students have taken a class addressing the First Amendment), only 25% of students personally think about the First Amendment, with the remaining 75% suggesting they take it for granted (38%) or know nothing about it whatsoever (36%).

Once again, the study finds that students are more sensitive to First Amendment infringements when they impact their lives directly, such as songs with offensive lyrics and censorship of student publications. Students are more likely than their teachers and parents to claim that the First Amendment goes too far and are less likely to support newspaper publication without prior government review or flag burning as a political statement.

A couple of interesting findings surface in the second half of the study concerning student media use. Parents (43%) and peers (39%) are more influential than teachers (13%) in influencing students' choices of news sources. Internet use as a news source has increased significantly during the last year, from 31% who surfed the net for news daily or several times a week to 53%. The most popular forms of digital media for high schoolers are online videos (39% use several times a week), online discussions (28%), and posting online messages (23%). Blogs (17%) and use of mobile devices (15%) to access the news rate lower.

Here's hoping that this Constitution Day is a more memorable one for our nation's students, and in the process, they become more knowledgeable about the First Amendment and forward defenders of the freedoms it guarantees. Hope to see you tonight for the Constitution Day program in Chicago Heights.


Freedom of Speech and Media in the Digital Age

By Shawn Healy
On Monday September 17, in celebration of Constitution Day, the Homewood-Flossmoor Area chapter of The League of Women Voters is sponsoring a program of the above title. It will be held at the Prairie State College Auditorium from 7-9pm.

The program will feature an introductory speech by Dr. Larry Arnhart, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University. He will address the difficulties in interpreting the First Amendment, and emphasize the fact that citizens have a right and duty to interpret the Constitution according to its original language. In his words, the power of constitutional interpretation should not be left to judges alone.

A panel discussion will follow, of which I will serve as the moderator. I'll be joined by William Zieske, legal counsel for Bryan Cave in Chicago, who specializes as a library lawyer. The other panelist will be former Freedom Museum intern, and current University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana student and Daily Illini reporter Riley Roberts. Collectively, we plan to address such questions as:
  1. How free is student speech? Student newspapers?
  2. Are your rights threatened? Are students' rights changing?
  3. How do MySpace and other social networking sites affect individual free speech?
  4. What can be printed on a t-shirt and worn in public school?
  5. Internet filters and security versus media literacy?
The program is open to the public, and the content is particularly pertinent to local high school and college students. All attendees will receive a copy of Free Speech 3.0: Student Expression in the Digital Age, along with a personal pocket Constitution. Come one, come all, and help us celebrate this most important of days.


State of the First Amendment 2007

By Shawn Healy
The First Amendment Center released their annual survey of Americans' attitudes toward the five freedoms today to commemorate the sixth anniverary of the 9/11 attacks and Constitution Day (this coming Monday). The findings should trouble any fan of freedom, and reinforce the utility of facilities like the Freedom Museum and our peer organizations, the First Amendment Center most prominently. In the words of FAC executive director Gene Policinski, "Americans clearly have mixed views of what the First Amendment freedoms are and to whom they should apply." The results "...endorse the idea of more and better education for young people--our nation's future leaders--about our basic freedoms."

Religious tolerance is notably wanting, as 65% believe the Founders intended to establish a Christian nation, and 55% suggest the Constitution cements this notion. Only 56% believe that the free exercise of religion extends to all religious groups, no matter how extreme, a decline of 16% from 2000.

Support for student expression also rates miserably, as 74% would prevent students from wearing t-shirts to public school that might offend others. Press freedom fares similarly, as 60% feel that the media fails to report the news without bias and 62% think that fabricating stories is a widespread problem. On a positive note, only 34% feel that the press has too much freedom, the lowest percentage since the survey began in 1997.

In an era when several states and the federal government have passed laws restricting funeral protests in reaction to the Westboro Baptist Church, 58% of those surveyed support the spirit of such legislation, tolerating bans even on public streets and sidewalks.

In sum, the picture is disturbing, as a full-quarter of respondents believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. The bitter irony is that most Americans can't name more than one of the five freedoms embedded in the First Amendment. While 64% are able to identify freedom of speech, only 19% recall religion, 16% press and assembly, and a scant 3% petition. This parallels the results of our 2006 Simpsons survey where Americans were more likely to name the members of the Simpsons family (five in total) than they were the five freedoms.

My fellow friends of the First Amendment, our work is cut out for us. Please join me on the forward front of helping all Americans better understand, value, and protect the freedoms enabled by the First Amendment.


Kept the Virtual Market Open

By Shawn Healy
I was interviewed last week by Phil Rodgers of NBC-5 on the subject of's offering of magazines, books, and videos depicting animal fighting and other forms of cruelty. The online bookseller has been the subject of scrutiny from animal rights organizations like the Humane Society for allegedly violating a federal statute prohibiting the commercialization and furtherance of violence with animals.

A quick scan of Amazon, and a reader can find magazines depicting cockfighting, videos of dog fights, even a historic book on the former subject. Type "The Dog Pit" in the search box atop the screen and you'll have access to 24 copies of the 1888 tome. The book description informs us that "Contents Include How to Select, Breed, Train and Manage Fighting Dogs..."

Turn to the reader reviews, and a visitor encounters only two. The first is entirely critical, beginning with this terse language: "What a cruel and inhumane subject for a book. I hope people do not buy such tragic information. Do they want their children to read this book to learn how to torture dogs?"

The second critic obviously read the book (not clear in the first case), and suggested that "Like many guides from the earlier eras [on household, gardening, health, manners] this one shows where our society has been, how it's changed, and how surprisingly long-standing are some concerns."

Scroll down to the discussion board and the visitor can read and partake in an online discourse about the book, and in this case, the fact that Amazon makes its available for public consumption. One thread reads "Shame on you Amazon," and protests, " Amazon I will not buy another thing from your web site until you stop selling this crap. What is wrong with you??!!!" The seven posts that follow capture the same spirit, even targeting Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos.

I honestly didn't give the aforementioned controversy much attention prior to my interview, although the First Amendment purist in me tends to oppose book bans universally. I detail the above example because it led me to the conclusion that the marketplace of ideas, beyond eCommerce, is working on Amazon and elsewhere. By offering The Dog Pit and similar publications and materials, Amazon affords readers and customers a historic and contemporary perspective on the controversy surrounding dog fighting. How else can opponents arm themselves with the factual information necessary to disarm shadow operations like the one run on Michael Vick's property? For this reason and others, academic freedom must reign supreme.

Back to the federal statute. Is Amazon violating its dictates? The answer is potentially in the affirmative (I'll leave that for the courts to decide), but I would also argue that the law is potentially overbroad and the target of an fatal ruling by the federal courts. While Amazon is not publicizing actual instances of animal cruelty, the previously mentioned materials could be construed as furthering the cause, thus the potential pitfall. Should this occur, academic freedom would undoubtedly be violated, and the First Amendment weakened in the process. Commercial speech is admittedly afforded lower status and protection than that of a political nature, and Congress' undertaking here constitutes the former. The slippery slope surfaces when and if political statements about the utility of animal fighting fall victim to the statute.

What then, are the limits? Should the Anarchist Cookbook be available for public consumption? The line, although a seemingly shifty one, is drawn at the brink of incitement. When description trends toward advocacy of illegal activity, then the government has an interest in curtailing such speech. Otherwise, Congress and the courts would be wise to let the marketplace work. Amazon may pay a price from many consumers for offering what they consider vile products, but others will use these offerings for constructive (maybe illegal) purposes.

Academic freedom, and the First Amendment reigns, because we fight for its principles on the fringes. The Dog Pit and its contemporaries must remain on the virtual shelves of Amazon so that other controversial matters of public concern receive a favorable hearing in future debates.


Rising Phoenix

By Shawn Healy

When Illinois Governor Blagojevich signed the College Campus Press Act last Friday, the state finally closed the book on a deplorable chapter that threatened student journalism at colleges throughout the country.

Turn back the clock to 2001 when Patricia Carter, Dean of Student Affairs at Governors StateUniversity in University Park, Illinois, prevented publication of the Innovator to impede dissemination of articles critical of the campus administration (the paper has not been published since). Three former student journalists, led by Margaret Hosty, filed suit and ultimately lost their case when the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled in favor of Carter, suggesting that her decision was complicated by the unsettled state of student press law.

When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revisit the case on appeal, college students at state institutions in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, were relegated to the press protections of high school students, namely court-sanctioned administrative censorship.

Such intrusion upon press freedom at the college level is simply unprecedented, and several states responded to a threat that transcended the Midwest. In 2006, the State of California acted to extend professional press freedoms to college papers, and this summer, Oregon went further to include high school students. Illinois, the epicenter of the threat, was right to follow suit with similar legislation.

The College Campus Press Act prohibits public officials and administrators at state-funded institutions of higher learning from reviewing and censoring the content of student newspapers prior to publication. Violations of this act may result in civil action with monetary compensation awarded. Media advisers are protected from arbitrary firings should they refuse to suppress student journalists. College reporters are still liable for content deemed obscene or inciting violence, and institutions may not be sued for content created by student journalists.

In the end, Margaret Hosty and her peers found vindication in the Prairie State with the passage of the College Campus Press Act. From these ashes a new student paper, The Phoenix, has risen at Governors State, an appropriate symbol for the restoration of college press rights in Illinois.


Slap in the Face or Saving Grace?

By Shawn Healy
When Senator Robert Byrd attached a rider to the 2004 Omnibus spending bill mandating instruction specific to the United States Constitution each year on September 17th in all publicly-funded educational institutions, as a government teacher and self-described constitutional scholar, I greeted the development with a small dose of resentment. After all, I devoted my career to teaching the Constitution, spending each day of the school year on the structures of our federal system dictated by the document and the limitations on government power spelled out within and throughout the recipient Bill of Rights. I thought, to shortchange the oldest written Constitution in the world to a single day is a slap in the face.

I have since left the classroom for the contemporary, media-intensive, and interactive exhibits of the Freedom Museum, but my mission to spread the gospel of the Founding Fathers has only grown. With the transition, my view of Constitution Day has since evolved. Educational institutions like the Freedom Museum have been given a great gift by the unofficial Senate historian and constitutional champion, Mr. Byrd. We now have a niche market to which we can sell the wonders of our founding freedoms and the defects neglected in the wake of our nation’s birth.

Our second annual teacher resource fair on September 11, 2007, is motivated by this very ideal. Attendees will have access to our exhibit and educational outreach, but also to resources from dozens of our peer organizations, all of whom offer materials meant to enhance the quality of the educational experience in classrooms throughout the country. I anticipate that you will walk away with lesson plan ideas, templates, and supplementary resources to meet the federal mandate six days later, not to mention the balance of the 2007-2008 school year. In the process, I urge you to join us in our efforts to make every day Constitution Day.


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