Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Strike One...

By Shawn Healy
The Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act survived its first challenge in federal court on Monday when US District Judge Rob Gettlemen refused to issue an injunction to prevent implementation of a mandatory moment of silence in Illinois public schools. Gettlemen wrote that the "balance of harm does not favor the plaintiff at this moment."

The case is by no means closed, however. Judge Gettlemen has "some serious questions" about the title of the act and potential abuses stemming from it. The plaintiff, atheist activist Rob Sherman, promises an amended lawsuit. The challenge for him will be to identify the proper defendants, as school district board members and a homeroom teacher did not suffice. Gettlemen suggested the state board of education or the Governor's office.

Stay tuned for the next pitch...


Courting Our Annual Culture War

By Shawn Healy
With Halloween this Wednesday, and Thanksgiving and Christmas on deck (decorations will probably start appearing next week), the culture wars are apparently heating up for another round of holiday cheer, or should I say jeers?

As predicted, the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act was greeted with its first lawsuit on Friday by Buffalo Grove (IL) High School freshman Dawn Sherman. With her father and attorney, she seeks an immediate injunction against the law and an ultimate decision concerning its constitutionality. Although the prospects of winning seem slim, the Chicago Tribune and others have questioned the law's wisdom (this from a right-of-center editorial board!).

Stevenson High School junior Aliya de Grazia led a walk-out of her first period class a week ago Friday, and was greeted with a Saturday detention of three hours, ironically a MUCH longer moment of silence!

De Grazia protested legislative overreach, allowing that "it's good for students to take a moment and think about their day, but that should be done on their own time."

She too sees the slippery slope: "This doesn't seem like a big deal now, but these kinds of things can escalate."

At Wheaton College, sophomore Erika Corder sued her Colorado high school after she proselytized in a commencement address and was subsequently punished. Reminiscent of Brittany McComb, Corder was sneaky in her delivery, submitting a prepared speech to her principal for approval, and memorizing her non-written religious segment. She was at first denied her diploma until she apologized for her actions. She refused, but did acknowledge that her bait-and-switch technique was flawed.

To Corder's credit, she seeks clarity for high school graduation speeches when God is referenced. The financial stake here is only attorney's fees. I could save all parties some money and suggest that proselytizing is forbidden, mere references to religion and its importance in one's life is permissible, and Corder has no claim because she defied school policy from the start. Case closed!

Last, but not least, the Supreme Court accepted a case concerning a Muslim prisoner's claim that officials illegally confiscated two copies of his Quran and a prayer rug. The case does not directly invoke the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, but it does touch it tangentially. The minutia of the challenge centers on the question of whether prison officials are law enforcement officers and thus protected by the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, which bars liability lawsuits for confiscated property.

The courts, once again, will weigh in on each of these issues, hopefully providing further clarity as to whether there are cracks in the wall of the First Amendment, and if the "play in the joint" between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses permits flexibility as we ramp up for our annual seasonal standoff.


Generation Overwhelmed?

By Shawn Healy
Courtney Martin dissected Thomas Friedman's "Generation Q" hypothesis in an October 22nd article published in the online edition of The American Prospect. She obviously feels personally slighted by Friedman's admonition of the modern cohort for "point and click activism," but her small group of friends sounds like an exception to the post-Baby Boom generation that occasionally utters a feint echo of the activism of our parents'.

Martin contests Friedman's labels of "quiet" and "apathetic," arguing instead that "Generation Q" is distracted, outraged, and apathetic, hence the tendency to tune out and bloviate about sweet nothings on Facebook. Friedman is probably guilty of generalizing for a diverse bunch, and a mandatory draft was certainly the impetus of much of the opposition to the Vietnam War during his formative years, but Martin misses his larger point, and the evidence is on his side.

True, the 24-hour news cycle showers us with a tsunami of information should we open that door, but contrary to Martin's contention, it did not invent a "big and brutal" world. It merely does a better job of opening our eyes to what happens beyond our computer screens. Furthermore, causes throughout American history have been many and diverse, and activists of all stripes have been forced to pick and choose, devoting our time to the ones we deem most worthy.

Additionally, quantitative data reveals overwhelming evidence that a generation of Americans has abandoned the news, a critical component of civic engagement and activism. Paging through "Young People and the News," a July 2007 report produced by the Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, one is forced to conclude that "Generation Q" is not overwhelmed, but instead clueless. Whereas just a few decades ago there was little age difference in news consumption across multiple media (variation was instead correlated with education), dramatic disparities by age group have since surfaced. Given the plethora of options available to us all, one could argue that older Americans should struggle most with an ever-expanding menu given the fact that they were raised in "simpler" times.

Young people have abandoned the newspaper (only 5% are self-identified "heavy users" who read one daily), and are also less likely than their older (31 and over) counterparts to watch television news, to listen to radio news, and even to surf the internet for news. When it comes to "hard news," the ingredients pertinent to civic participation, the gap grows even wider. The deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Barbaro, tragic as they were, contribute little to the debate over global warming. True, news outlets contribute to this "hard news" deficit, but seasoned consumers have a myriad of options in search of the "currency of democracy."

How, then, do we make certain that younger Americans mimic the habits and develop of the passion of Martin and her peers?

As a self-described news junkie just removed from the "Generation Q," a look back to my formative years might be helpful.

I grew up in Milwaukee, at the time a two-newspaper town, and had both delivered to my home on a daily basis, the Sentinel in the morning, and the Journal in the afternoon. I was first and foremost a sports fan as a young boy, and the papers provided recaps of last night's game, features about my diamond, hard court, and gridiron heroes, and enough statistics to satisfy my number-hungry tendencies. To read about the Brewers, however, I had to remove the protective layers of the paper otherwise known as the front page, metro and business sections, even the funnies. In the process, I couldn't help but read about the latest election, local scandal, stock market crash, or Doonesbury satire. Inadvertently, at first, I was exposed to a world of news I didn't otherwise seek (Such is the means by which most young Americans encounter hard news even now, be it the hourly segment on their top-40 radio station or the headlines on their Google home page. ). Soon I was staying up late to watch political conventions, listening to local news radio, even writing my state and national representatives. In short, the news bug led to greater interest, and involvement.

I also believe that older role models can demonstrate adequate news consumption by subscribing to the daily paper as my parents and grandparents did, watch the nightly news as a family, and listen to NPR and its AM equivalents in the car. Moreover, given the untold hours that young people spend online and text messaging, they should be instructed on how to access hard news in the process, for if "Generation Q" knows anything, they are proficient multitaskers.

Our schools must also play a pivotal role in the process, for it remains the last socializing institution to which Americans of all classes, races, and ethnicities are exposed. Current events should be incorporated across the curriculum, and media literacy should be a graduation requirement at the middle and high school levels. Local newspapers offer their product free of charge to willing teachers and schools, and weekly magazines go out of their way to develop curriculum that corresponds with their publications.

My critique of Martin centered almost entirely on news consumption, and perhaps this is a little unfair, but I believe it is the one variable that we can change when we talk about inspiring the next generation to aspire to a cause greater than the own personal ambitions, whether it be the sustenance of representative democracy in the United States, or world peace. In the end, I think that Friedman is right. Younger Americans are tuned in to their personal lives, but distracted from their larger place in a global society. Daily news consumption, while no panacea, would contribute greatly to reversing this dismal trend.


Using Freedom to End Slavery

By Catherine Feerick
The author of Disposable People, Kevin Bales, spoke on Tuesday night at the Freedom Museum on the still-prevalent issue of global slavery. The widespread population boom of the past fifty years has left more people than ever vulnerable to losing their essential freedoms to the economic pursuits of others. When the rule of law breaks down, or when corruption permeates a society, the potential for slavery becomes a reality. The result of these forces is a worldwide estimate of 27 million slaves today.

Contrary to one’s expectations, Kevin Bales did not simply discuss the condition of slaves and the slave trade in well known regions like the Ivory Coast or parts of India. The slave trade, it seems, is alive even in the United States, despite the fact that involuntary servitude has been illegal since the passing of the 13th Amendment on January 31st, 1865. According to Kevin Bales, a conservative estimate of all slaves in the United States would be 40,000, with 17,000 smuggled through the borders each year. These modern-day slaves are promised ready work and a chance for social mobility; upon entering America they instead become sex workers or forced laborers in fields and sweatshops, unpaid and unable to leave.

Despite an ever-growing population and continued political instability in many parts of the world, the future is not entirely bleak. Agencies all over the world, such as Kevin Bales’ own agency, Free the Slaves, the London-based Anti-Slavery International, and the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, have stepped up to combat the modern slave trade and the conditions that allow for its existence. There is a nearly universal consensus throughout the globe that slavery is wrong, and although there are more slaves than ever before, their proportion within the overall population is the smallest in world history. Kevin Bales is optimistic that if governments and NGO’s worked together world slavery could cease to exist within several decades.

His latest book, Ending Slavery, details how this can be accomplished without damaging the global economy and with little investment. Brazil has provided a model for government tactics to fight the industry, and non-governmental groups have mustered their resources to bring about the end of slavery since the 1780’s.

Which brings me to the event that Bales touched upon within the first few minutes of his lecture, and that ties together not only his message of optimism but also how the story of the fight against global slavery coincides with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Slavery has been condemned throughout the ages as a crime against human freedom. The first group to decide to do something about it met in a London bookshop 220 years ago and finally resolved to put an end to the practice. Twelve individuals, nine of them Quakers and none of them socially formidable, went to great pains to promote awareness of the realities of forced servitude and achieved a great feat within about twenty years: the [Abolition of the] Slave Trade Act in England in 1807. If this isn’t a testament to the power of the freedom of assembly, I don’t know what is.


My Grandfather's Son

By Shawn Healy
The title of Associate Supreme Court Clarence Thomas' recently-released autobiography. I had the pleasure of reading this uplifting and utterly American story last week, and the honor is seeing the Justice speak in person on Sunday at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. I came away an unabashed fan of the book, the man, and his life, regardless of where he stands on the ideological spectrum.

Thomas was born into dire poverty in Pinpoint, GA. He met his father for the first time when he was nine, and lived briefly in Savannah housing projects with his mother, a step up from the tenements they occupied after his rural home burned down. His life was transformed when he moved into the modest, but well-kept home of his grandparents. His grandfather, Daddy, delivered daily doses of tough love, but it provided Thomas with the foundation and will to overcome the hurdles that race, poverty, and life in general would present to him in his rise to the top. Even today, Thomas suggests, "I am my grandfather's son."

Thomas trained to be a priest, left the seminary to the perpetual disappointment of Daddy, and climbed the academic ladder, first as an undergrad at Holy Cross, and later at Yale Law School. He found that an Ivy League education meant little to a black man at the time, and thus wound up in Jefferson City, MO, working for then State Attorney General John Danforth, henceforth his political benefactor.

After a brief tryst in the private sector, Thomas descended upon Washington to work for since-crowned Senator Danforth, and later for the Reagan Administration within first the Education Department, and later the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. From here he was appointed by President H.W. Bush to the DC Court of Appeals, and shortly thereafter to the US Supreme Court, the latter an infamous, bruising battle.

Thomas' rise is nothing less than meteoric, a self-described "life of miracles." His first confrontation with the Court was the road signs that lined rural Georgia highways during his youth calling for Earl Warren's impeachment in the aftermath of the Brown decision. Understandably, Thomas became an angry black man who saw the world stacked against him. He turned to alcohol to soothe his pain. His first marriage also unraveled into divorce and an initial abandonment of his son, Jamal.

He was able to overcome each of these obstacles, adopting conservative principles to the chagrin of white liberals and people of color in the civil rights establishment, going cold turkey to this day, and embracing and raising his son through adolescence. He also found the love of his life with his second marriage to his wife Virginia, and now raises his sister's son in a parallel gesture to that executed by his grandfather.

Having read a number of books authored by Supreme Court justices, the tone of this volume stands alone, and the anger of youth bleeds through the pages, as the reader has a front row seat to the transformation of Clarence Thomas.

Yes, the Anita Hill controversy is revisited through his own eyes (and she responded in an October 2nd NY Times op-ed piece claiming that he "reinvented" her), along with a confirmation battle that became a national soap opera. Thomas reached the point where he no longer sought the nomination, only the restoration of his reputation. I'll leave history to judge the accuracy of his contentions, but this contribution to the record was noticeably wanting.

The larger question of the race-based scrutiny Thomas faced, and currently faces, relative to his conservative principles is an important one. Is Thomas right in saying what he learned to fear most was not to outright hostility of racial segregationists, but the backhanded tactics of white liberals who "lynched" him before the American people?

The book ends with Thomas' installation on the Court, but the Associate Justice answered a slew of questions about his jurisprudence at Sunday's program. His goal on the Court is to reunite people with their Constitution. As an "originalist," he attempts to determine what the document says and what the Founders intended. The other option, by default, is to "make it up." By this he means it is unwise to weave personal public policy interests into decisions.

Thomas is known as perhaps the quietest member of the Court during oral arguments. He attributes this to the fact that most of the work of the Court is done in writing, and argues that 9 of 10 cases can be decided by the legal briefs alone. He sees oral arguments as a forum for lawyers to state their respective cases, not a seminar or debate session. In the end, "(He) ask(s) all the questions that need to be asked."

As for international jurisprudence as a guiding light for American precedent, Thomas wants none of it, contending it has no place in the federal judiciary. There is a tendency to "cherry pick" from those countries with whom one agrees personally, and this is no way to rule on the American bench, Thomas claims.

Perhaps the most powerful message delivered by Thomas was one of reconciliation. What better man to deliver it? When asked how to raise the level of discourse in our country, he prodded us to start with ourselves and to begin listening to others. Thomas points to the accepted tendency of destroying those who we disagree with, when we should instead learn to respectfully disagree. Moreover, we should demand more of elected officials, for this is the most poisonous patch. The Supreme Court, where civility is the rule, could be the guiding light.

Thomas left the audience with this parting advice: "Stand against the world if you think you're right." His inspirational life story is proof of the power of this credo.

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Silence in the Courtroom

By Shawn Healy
My analysis of the mandatory moment of silence required at the start of the day at public schools across the State of Illinois led me to Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, and a national expert on the subject of religious liberty. In addition to being an objective voice in the ever-intense culture wars, Charles was a key component of the Freedom Museum's advisory panel and one of three lead curators on the initial project.

I sent Charles the text of the statute and asked him to consider it in light of the Alabama case I referenced on Wednesday, for it appeared that the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in 1985. He disagrees, claiming "...there is nothing unconstitutional about this law. The Alabama 'moment of silence' law was struck down because a majority of the Supreme Court saw the legislative history as evidence that the law was an attempt to return state-sponsored prayer to the public schools."

The distinction, then, lies in the law's legislative history, sure to be revisited with the inevitable legal challenges surfacing in the coming months and years as the statute is applied.

Charles also referred to the potential exception specified in Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion. She "...indicated...that a genuinely neutral 'moment of silence' would be constitutional. Legislators have been careful about how their propose and word these laws ever since. The fact that the Illinois law mentions prayer as one of the options for students during the silence does not make it unconstitutional. As long as school officials do not encourage or promote prayer during that time, then the moment of silence does not violate the First Amendment. Listing prayer as one of the (obvious) activities students may engage in while silent is fine as I read current law."

Charles suggests that similar laws have been implemented elsewhere (Virginia for one) without disturbing the "wall of separation" between church and state, with a few exceptions. As a result, he finds no evidence that the Illinois law "...violates the First Amendment and...doubt(s) it can be successfully challenged in court."

The matter of whether this is sound policy remains in dispute. Some suggest we tread ever closer to the slippery slope of knocking down the revered wall, but Charles dissents, at least in this case. He "...tend(s) to think it is an appropriate accommodation for those many Americans who believe time should be set aside in public schools to acknowledge God. Even though students may pray in public schools today-- alone or in groups -- many people still want some formal time that is set aside for prayer -- or at least the option of prayer. A genuinely neutral moment of silence is one way to accommodate those people without violating the First Amendment."

The master has spoken, and his pupils are better informed, as always. Thanks, Charles!


Is Silence a Lemon?

By Shawn Healy
Last Thursday, the Illinois House of Representatives joined their Senate peers to override Governor Blagojevich's veto of a state law mandating a daily moment of silence in Illinois public schools. The statute reads as follows:

"In each public school classroom the teacher in charge shall observe a brief period of silence with the participation of all of the pupils therein assembled at the beginning of the school day. This period shall not be conducted as a religious exercise but shall be an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day."

Illinois joins 11 other states with a similar mandate, along with 23 others that allow for the teacher to voluntarily institute a daily moment of silence (Illinois was formerly a member of this group after passage of a 2002 law). Its implementation is to occur immediately, although the statute fails to spell out consequences for insubordination, not to mention potential punishments for unruly students who disturb the mandatory silence. Moreover, it says nothing about its duration.

These concerns considered, the mention of prayer as a potential option during the moment of silence, and the historical intent of mandated silence at schools, raises the First Amendment issue of the Establishment Clause, which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion..."

The Supreme Court first addressed the issue in the 1962 Engel case when it deemed New York's Regents Prayer unconstitutional. Speaking for the Court, Justice Hugo Black wrote, "the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by the government."

The Illinois law dodges this decision because it mandates a moment of silence, not a specific prayer, but read on.

The Court currently uses the so-called Lemon Test, a product of the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman, to weigh Establishment Clause challenges. It is composed of three parts.
  1. The statute must have a secular purpose.
  2. Its primary effect can neither advance nor inhibit religion.
  3. The statute cannot foster "excessive entanglement" with religion.
The answers to all three questions, by my count, are murky. We cannot be certain about the purpose of the law, although I am skeptical given the repeated attempts nationwide to institute prayer and its specific mention in the statute. By allowing for prayer during the moment of silence, it clearly does not inhibit religious practice, but it may advance it beyond what was already occurring in Illinois schools. Third, the statute probably doesn't reach the level of "excessive entanglement," but it does represent some degree of mixing church and state.

We must search elsewhere for a more definitive answer.

In a 1985 case, Wallace v. Jaffree, the Court considered an Alabama law that mandated a minute of silence in all public schools for "meditation or voluntary prayer." Sounds a lot like what the Illinois legislature cooked up, huh? Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, arguing that the law failed the first prong of the Lemon test given the state's former law mandating prayer. Stevens contended that the law "...had no secular purpose."

Representative Lou Lang (D-Skokie) feels the same about the Illinois statute he voted against. He said, "This doesn't mandate school prayer, but let's face it--that's what this is about."

Concurring opinions in the Alabama case, however, allowed for a statute that mandated a moment of silence with no mention of prayer. By this measure, Illinois is on thin ice.

Enter atheist and activist Rob Sherman, whose daughter is a 14-year old freshman at Buffalo Grove High School. He promises a lawsuit against Township High School District 214 upon implementation and will seek an immediate injunction. Sherman points to the minute his daughter will likely lose in her biology class each day, the equivalent of 3 hours over the course of a 181-day school year.

We'll await the verdict of Sherman's challenge to the latest product of our vaunted state legislature. This much we know. The Governor vetoed it because he thinks it erodes the barrier between church and state. Schools have scratched their heads as to why the law was passed, and how to effectively implement its vague language.

May a hundred lawsuits bloom.

  1. For analysis of the statute's constitutionality by religious scholar Charles Haynes click here.
  2. For an update on the act's implementation and first legal challenge, along with its place in the larger context of the "culture wars" click here.
  3. To read about the first court decision considering the statute and barring an injunction click here.


Generation Q

By Shawn Healy
Thomas Friedman's label for the current crop of college students, "Q" as in the "Quiet Americans." Accompanying the nickname is a backhanded complement. He writes, "I am impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be."

He cites the tendency of current students to study abroad despite the threat of global terrorism, not to mention building homes for the poor in El Salvador and volunteering at AIDS clinics. ROTC service is not frowned upon; in fact, members wear their uniforms on campus with pride. "Teach for America" has become the Baby Boomers' equivalent of the Peace Corps.

These admirable strides toward service considered, Friedman contends that this generation is "...too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country's own good." Despite a ballooning budget deficit, a Social Security plan threatened in terms of long-term solvency, and global climate change encroaching from all corners, the "sound of silence" echoes from Generation Q. Such threats demand activism, but this generation is wont to send an email, sign an online petition, or "click for carbon neutrality." Instead, "they will have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them."

Facebook groups and MySpace postings do little more than occupy time and fill screen space. I know that there are exceptions, like the Facebook group that organized a DC rally for Senator Obama at which he appeared, but most are more of the surface variety, such as "Bear Fans for Brian Griese." Christine Rosen of the Christian Science Monitor said it best when she wrote, "...users (of social networking sites) are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one's own and others' lives is the main activity in the online social networking world."

All in good humor, of course, but these times call for a seriousness wanting amongst our youth, and these technologies can serve a greater purpose. The hope is that they inspire and coordinate "boots on the ground" action to make this country a better place, similar to the civil rights revolution of the 1960's. To date, their impact has been quite the opposite. According to Rob Nyland of BYU, users of social networking sites "feel less socially involved with the community around them." Moreover, those who use these sites for entertainment purposes tend to be less socially involved.

Time to turn off the computer and take to the streets. The very fabric of our democratic republic demands more as we "amus(e)...ourselves to death."

10.11.2007 2.0

By Shawn Healy
Cass Sunstein visited the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum last evening to discuss his new book, 2.0, an updated version of his 2001 edition. I've read both and can vouch for their intuitive reasoning and enlightened discourse, and recommend the most recent version for all of those interested in the impact of Internet culture on democracy.

Sunstein's book was inspired by the phrase, "The Daily Me," the ability to personalize and customize news offerings on the web in line with our personal predispositions, meaning conservatives can visit for their news, and liberals the Daily Kos. We enter these "echo chambers," and find our prevailing views strengthened and pulled toward the ideological poles. This is symptomatic of the fragmentation of our media.

The author conducted an experience in Boulder and Colorado Springs among liberal and conservative residents of each respective city. Participants were recruited in the basis of their like/dislike of Vice President Cheney. When discussing the issues of gay marriage, climate change, and affirmative action, members of the like-minded groups become even more extreme in their views, as diversity of thought declined in the process. Sunstein contends that our prevailing Internet culture produces similar effects.

At the same time, when we enter such "echo chambers," we come to think of those who disagree with us and enemies and antagonists. This bitter polarization, according to Sunstein, is bad for democracy.

Contrary to the "marketplace of ideas" concept of free speech advanced by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sunstein advances a competing notion of free speech championed by former Justice Louis Brandeis, who called for governmental maintenance of public forums open to diverse points of view. He works from the premise that we have a civic obligation to hear from people with viewpoints different than our own.

To accomplish this, we must rely upon shared experiences like those offered by a museum open to the public. National holidays like the 4th of July and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day also help us recognize our commonalities as citizens. He credits former colleague and current presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama for understanding this notion. For example, Obama speaks of a feminist who talks her friend out of having an abortion, while at the same time an evangelical Christian helps to pay for an abortion for an acquaintance. By combining red and blue, he helps us to see that we are all a certain shade of purple.

Daily newspapers, weekly news magazines, and network TV news also provide shared experiences, but declining readership and ratings have undermined this common experience where we are exposed to points of view we never would have chosen independently. An op-ed page perhaps captures this phenomenon best, as we can be exposed to the traditional conservatism of George Will, the libertarian leanings of Steve Chapman, and the progressive slant of Paul Krugman in a single dose.

Specific to the blogosphere, Sunstein hopes that individual blogs adopt the ethos of a well-functioning newspaper. Link to viewpoints different than one's own, cover a myriad of issues, and in the process moderate the extremities of our polarized polity. Fanning the Flames lives these values.


Battered Ram

By Shawn Healy
Rocky Mountain Collegian editor David McSwane was admonished by an independent review board for his bone-headed editorial featuring a headline that used President Bush and a four-letter word in the same banner. The Colorado State University Board of Student Communications found that McSwane violated the newspaper's code of ethics (“profane and vulgar words are not acceptable for opinion writing"), but that his actions were protected by the First Amendment. McSwane's decision to publish the editorial was deemed “unethical and unprofessional.”

I concur, and at the same time commend the wisdom of the Board of Student Communications at Colorado State. The members will without doubt face scorn for their leniency, but freedom of the press emerges triumphant.

By admonishing McSwane, the Board will hopefully teach him a valuable lesson that would have even more severe consequences in a professional newsroom, (namely, he would be out of a job and unable to pay rent). Moreover, they vindicated the First Amendment rights of student journalists, seemingly a lonely victory after a series of defeats.

McSwane's comments were concise after surviving the storm he precipitated,: “I am proud to be a student at a university that respects students’ First Amendment rights.” Let's hope he exercises them more responsibly going forward.


Educating for Democracy: Lessons from Chicago

By Shawn Healy
The title of a new report published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, who conducted a longitudinal study of nearly 4,000 CPS students over the course of two years, and found that students who experienced discussions of social issues and were afforded opportunities to engage in service learning, developed a stronger commitment to civic involvement.

The problem of civic disengagement and apathy is of course well-documented. Between the years 1960 and 1976, 25% of young people between the ages of 18 and 15 followed public affairs. The number plummeted to 5% by 2000. Moreover, civic engagement has a strong correlation with one's position on the economic ladder. Affluent Americans are 4 times more likely to work on political campaigns, 3 times more likely to volunteer in their community, twice as likely to contact public officials, and 9 times more likely to donate to political campaigns.

Civics education has gone the way of the dodo. In fact, past research showed little connection between a civics course and subsequent engagement. Recent emphasis on high-stakes testing has pushed social studies classes and other subjects to the wayside in favor of math and reading, a decline of 71%!

My own experiences as an educator were confirmed with the results of this study. Classroom practices in civics classes and across the curriculum can impact civic engagement. Indeed, when best practices are incorporated, they are the most meaningful factor, eclipsing parental discussions of current events, neighborhood social capital, one's social sense of belonging, school and non-school clubs, even poverty. Such techniques include service learning, monitoring current events, discussing local problems and identifying potential solutions, in-class discussions of controversial issues and issues pertinent to young people, and exposing students to civic role models.

I was fortunate to teach an American government course at Community High School in West Chicago, IL, for four years, and to work with amazing mentors like Steve Arnold and Mary Ellen Daneels. The two of them created a simulation of the lawmaking process called the Legislative Semester that has since been replicated at a number of area high schools. Senior students are exposed to a semester-long journey as a representative in a legislature. They discuss controversial issues, declare their political affiliations, write legislation, elect leadership, and consider the merits of bills proposed through committee hearings and several full sessions of the legislature. Parliamentary procedure, the underlying structure of government debate, is used every day in the classroom.

The results are inspirational. Students became political animals, engaging in arguments at all hours of the day in online forums, in the hallways, even in the cafeteria. I used to receive complaints from other teachers that these discussions were even interrupting their classes! Many joined our school's chapter of Junior State of America to carry on these deliberations beyond school hours, others served as election judges. Former students visited merely to tell me that they voted in the recent election. Several went on to study political science in college, and a few work on political campaigns.

These are mere anecdotes, but they confirm what Sue Sporte, my friend on the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, found in the aforementioned study. Civics instruction, when properly executed, matters. Indeed it is our best chance to reclaim our representative democracy, for schools are the one place where Americans of all races, ethnicities, and income levels come together.

The report included a quotation by former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins. He wrote, "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Time to feed the political animal deep inside all of us.


Rocky Mountain Sigh

By Shawn Healy
Odds are you've probably already heard the story of Colorado State student editor David McSwane, who responded to the recent tasering incident at the University of Florida with a simple, dim-witted editorial on September 21st that read "Taser this: F**k Bush." For his dereliction of duty, not to mention his exercise of freedom of speech, McSwane faces dismissal from his position. A smarter course would probably be suspension without pay, but given the fragile state of student press rights, the Board of Student Communications made a decision consistent with the prevailing winds.

McSwane, in his effort to prove a point, placed the financial status of his newspaper in jeopardy, as 18 advertisers have already pulled the plug, with a sum of $50,000 in revenue at stake. It should come as little solace then that a company already printing t-shirts with his now infamous slogan purchased $300 worth of space in The Collegian.

The Board of Student Communications, composed of six students and three faculty members, erred by masking the realities of professional journalism that McSwane and his peers were bound to learn along the way. Why not force McSwane to come to his own conclusion that free speech is not absolute, and even if his message was constitutionally protected, its exercise carries serious real world consequences?

I'm not apprised of McSwane's talents as a writer, but his judgment as an editor obviously demands refinement, and this will not occur if he is out of a job. My guess is that if left to his own auspices, he would have written a retraction, begged for current advertisers to stay on board, and in the process learned a valuable lesson in a training ground for professional journalism.

On another level, how sad is it that we live in such a polarized environment that freedom of speech has become a partisan issue. Shame on the College Republicans for leading the charge for McSwane's ouster. I fondly recall penning my own op-ed pieces critical of President Clinton during my college days, and expect that they were received warmly by the Republican contingent at the University of Wisconsin. While I substituted substantive arguments for petty one-liners and four-letter words, the exercise of political speech should be afforded the highest levels of First Amendment protection, both on college campuses and at major dailies. The five freedoms transcend our ever divided two-party system.

Here's hoping that McSwane fights his dismissal with legal representation, and if vindicated, learns a valuable lesson. Tasering the student editor for his boneheaded exercise of free speech was as inappropriate at CSU as it was in Gainesville. It is nothing less than cruel and unusual.


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