Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


One for Dixie

By Shawn Healy
In this era of constant conflict between student wardrobes and school dress codes, clothing that crosses the line of demarcation is a point of contestation. At the Freedom Museum our introductory film explores a standoff at Homewood-Flossmoor (IL) High School where the principal set aside a single day for students to show their allegiances in the gay rights debate. While students subscribing to or sympathizing with the Gay-Straight Alliance wore t-shirts that read, "Gay: Fine By Me," opponents wore their own with the words "Crimes Against God." The t-shirts themselves are on display on the second floor of the museum in our permanent exhibit.

A California student was disciplined for wearing a similar t-shirt to school as the anti-gay group at Homewood-Flossmoor, and the 9th District Court of Appeals upheld the suspension on the grounds that the words could create a harmful environment for homosexual students and their sympathisers. This seemingly runs counter to the same court's ruling in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case heard by the Supreme Court this term (decision pending), where the Tinker standard upholding student speech rights at the schoolhouse gate was applied in both cases. The caveat here is the "material and substantial" disruption exception of Tinker applied in the first case.

This brings us to the topic of today's discussion, namely, whether or not students who wear clothing adorned with the Confederate Flag constitute "material and substantial disruptions" as a result of their wardrobe. Leaving debates about Southern heritage and symbols of slavery aside, the key issue in a recent West Virginia case (and a series of others across the country) was whether the school implicated in the suit had a history of racial tensions. Hurricane High School in Putnam County, WV, apparently doesn't, and the right of senior Franklin Bragg to wear t-shirts and a belt buckle with the Confederate Flag thus protected by Tinker according to a federal judge.

While I do not quarrel with the outcome of the case, I am perplexed by the rationale used to arrive at such a conclusion. What constitutes evidence of racial tensions? How recent need such instances be to trigger a constitutional clothing ban? What if wearing clothing adorned by the Confederate Flag ignites racial unrest? Need the connection be direct? While I eagerly await word from the Supreme Court on the current state of student speech, I am skeptical that their pending decision will shed further light on these questions. Unless the high court continues to enter the student speech arena, a local and regional patchwork of inconsistency will remain the likely result in this realm.


HB 2787 Clears Another Hurdle

By Shawn Healy
HB 2787, the Civic Education Enhancement Act, passed the Illinois State Senate on Tuesday unanimously, 59-0. Led by its House sponsors Rep. William Davis and Rep. Suzanne Bassi, along with Senate sponsors Sen. William Delgado, Sen. Jacqueline Collins, and Sen. Dan Cronin, the legislation now heads to Governor Blagojevich's desk for consideration.

The act will create a civic trust fund for Illinois public schools. Operated through the state's 46 regional offices of education, money will be available to schools that apply for a civic audit orchestrated by the Illinois Coalition for a Civic Mission in Schools. Professional development money will then be released to train teachers in methods to strengthen civic education in social studies classes.


Mixed Verdict for Student Speech

By Shawn Healy
Fresh off of this morning's announcement that Cary-Grove (IL) High School student Alan Lee will not face disorderly conduct charges for the violent essay he penned in his high school English class, free speech advocates breathed a collective sigh of relief. This decision landed on top of a California appeals court decision in favor of former student Andrew Smith who authored an op-ed piece critical of illegal immigration, only to have Novato High School officials confiscate remaining copies of the paper and send a letter to parents claiming the piece should never have been published. Quite a departure from the experience of journalism teacher Amy Sorrell and student Megan Chase at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School outside of Fort Wayne, IN.

Gregory Requa, a senior at Kentridge (WA) High School, wasn't quite so fortunate. He allegedly took part in producing a film critical of his junior English teacher, Joyce Mong. The short video (caution: offensive material included) was filmed last year, posted on YouTube over the summer, and first discovered by school officials and the since retired teacher only after a local television station (KOMO 4 News) called seeking commentary in February 2007. Requa denies any role in the film's production. He did link the video to his MySpace page upon viewing it last summer. The principal, Michael Albrecht, considered the film a form of harassment and suspended Requa for 40 days. He will be able to participate in graduation ceremonies only if he writes a research paper on the issue of sexual harassment.

Admittedly, none of these stories are black and white, slam dunk cases. The video of Mong is without doubt tasteless and stands as borderline defamation, and Requa (and/ or other members of the guilty party) should be subjected to a libel suit (if Mong pursues the case) outside of the school environment. Punishment for production of the video and its life on the Internet, especially without definitive evidence of his guilt or material and sustantial disruption of the learning environment is constitutionally questionable.

Lee escaped legal charges, but his attorney's penchant to blame the teacher, Nora Capron, who assigned the essay, borders on ludicrous. Free writing exercises are invitations to write about whatever crosses one's mind, but Lee, a solid student and former Marine recruit, should have known better than to pen threatening prose implicating his teacher. In this era of Columbine and Virginia Tech, Capron was right to raise the red flag. Teachers are placed in a precarious position when security concerns collide with student speech. Imagine the blame Capron would bear if Lee carried through with his written threats.


Naturalization, Freedom and the Immigration Debate

By Riley Roberts
Having spurred massive demonstrations, innumerable passionate speeches and a controversial bill before Congress, the debate over the issue of illegal immigration seems to have captured the attention of the nation. In the face of this vigorous but often bitter public debate, it can be refreshing to get a glimpse of the friendlier side of the issue - legal immigration.

Just this morning in the Freedom Museum, the privilege of American citizenship was bestowed upon nine members of the armed forces and one spouse. These ten people - already familiar with the sacrifices that come with a life of military service - came fully into the rights and responsibilities afforded to all Americans.

Normally these ceremonies are held in courtrooms, but in honor of Armed Forces Day the Illinois District Court, the Department of Homeland Security and the McCormick Tribune Foundation partnered to arrange for the naturalization ceremony to take place on the ground floor of the Freedom Museum. Already a vibrant showcase of the liberties we hold so dear, it was especially poignant to see the museum play host to these military personnel as they were officially granted those freedoms.

"I always tell new citizens that I have a lot of respect for what they have done," said Judge David H. Coar, who presided over the ceremony. "Most American citizens never had to earn their citizenship - we were born to it. You've especially earned it by virtue of your service in the military."

After a few remarks by museum representatives and a Homeland Security official, the new citizens stood to take the oath of citizenship and then recited the Pledge of Allegiance along with the rest of the assembled crowd. David Grange, a retired Army General and current President and CEO of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, then gave a brief keynote speech.
General Grange's remarks were focused on the strength of the commitment made by each new citizen, especially in the context of the military background that he shares with each of them. He spoke of the responsibilities that come with this commitment, and of comrades-in-arms who laid down their lives for this country before they had the chance to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.

Finally, Grange presented each new citizen with a small, folded American flag to keep in his or her pocket, describing how he himself had carried such a flag in his rucksack through war and peacekeeping operations all over the world.

"Though it may be the most burned flag around the world, it's also the most recognized," he said.

If you haven't ever witnessed a naturalization ceremony, I recommend it. It's a surprisingly stirring occasion - for a moment, as the judge administers the oath of citizenship to the immigrants before you, you are reminded of so many things ordinarily taken for granted. It is a moment taken straight out of a grade school civics book - simple, patriotic, unencumbered by the political debate that rages over immigration in almost every other corner of American life.

In today's America, amidst all the healthy discussion, the divisive political moves and the innumerable problems that have no easy answers for Republicans, Democrats or independents, it's refreshing to experience a moment in which we can all be united for a simple reason. It's important to celebrate the status that few of us have had to earn but that allows each of us to exercise so many essential freedoms: citizenship.

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War and Liberty

By Shawn Healy
War and Liberty, the title of Geoffrey Stone's recent book describing the tendency for civil liberties to be scaled back during times of war throughout American history, accurately depicts a series of recent developments pertaining to this precarious balance during the war on terrorism. On Monday, the Pentagon announced that it was restricting access to 13 web sites for soldiers using its server, including those stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. MySpace and YouTube lead the list of sites devoted to social networking and file sharing. The rationale centered solely on bandwidth issues, but skeptics suggested that military commanders are trying to reign in unencumbered access to pictures, videos, and written descriptions of battle scenes and the daily life of a soldier.

On Wednesday I was asked to join a panel discussion of this development on WTTW's Chicago Tonight program. I was flanked by an editor of a political blog and a national security expert. Despite a substantive dialogue, we all seemed to agree that this decision isn't all that controversial given the fact that we are at war.

The Pentagon relies extensively on the Internet (its own creation, mind you) for precision bombing, and excessive bandwidth usage could compromise its integrity, undermine military missions, and place our troops in harm's way. Moreover, it is well known that soldiers sacrifice some of their liberties as a condition of their service (the Ehren Watada case is exploring the limits of this balance). Finally, the Supreme Court last year, in a 5-4 decision, curtailed the workplace free speech rights of government employees, making a distinction between rights of a citizen vs. those of an employee.

This liberty-security balance also has implications on the home front. Four states have either enacted laws or are in the process of considering legislation restricting the use of images of fallen soldiers on t-shirts or other items for commercial use without the permission the appropriate family. Commercial speech rights, while more restricted than those pertaining to political speech, could be undermined if these laws are applied.

Another issue concerns aerial imagery available through Internet servers like Yahoo and Google that selectively obscures certain locations deemed vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The San Francisco Chronicle found disparities in censorship across sites, and no legal requirement for such limitations. In this age of terrorist threats, it strikes me as a bit alarming that imagery of nuclear power plants and the like is available for public surveillance worldwide.

Regardless of where one stands on the ideological spectrum, we are without doubt in the process of finding our bearings in a new era. The liberty-security continuum is enduring expected shifts, and as citizens it is important to track these developments and to voice our opinions about an appropriate balance. MySpace, t-shirts, and Google Earth are but a few battlefields in this uncharted war.


A National Groundswell of Support for Student Press Rights

By Shawn Healy
On the heels of a disappointing defeat of legislation to strengthen student press rights at the high school and college level in Washington State, Oregon passed a student free expression bill of its own (HB-3279) late last evening. The final tally in the House was 39 yes, 16 no, 4 absent, and 1 excused. In an evenly split legislature, 31-29 Democrat to Republican, this development is a sign that Oregon was able to overcome the partisanship that has stymied such efforts elsewhere (not a single Republican supported the Washington bill). Also, school board and administrator organizations chose to support the legislation in Oregon as opposed to their substantial opposition in Washington (the efforts of paid lobbyists here were too extensive for the Washington chapter of the JEA to overcome).

The Oregon bill now heads to the State Senate with a 7-seat Democratic advantage (18-11). Insiders say it has a strong chance of passing, placing Oregon alongside 6 other states with strong student press rights (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, and Massachusetts). Check out the J-Ideas web site for more extensive coverage and analysis.

As for for Washington, Representative Dave Upthegrove has promised to reintroduce the same legislation in 2008, Michigan is currently considering similar legislation (stuck in Senate committee), and Indiana, Vermont, and North Carolina are considering legislative initiatives of their own.


Student Speech on the Docket

By Shawn Healy
Time Magazine published an excellent piece on the emerging issues surrounding students' rights to free speech and expression in our nation's public schools. The backdrop is the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case before the Supreme Court, with a ruling expected by the end of next month. The article also addresses student dress codes in light of gang problems, online criticism of school administrators, and the legal expenses that school districts are incurring to defend themselves against more numerous challenges from students, their parents, and legal organizations that cater to this cause.

My personal connection to this cause continues as I sit in an Indianapolis hotel room on the eve of a public policy forum sponsored by J-Ideas of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. A group of 20 or so First Amendment advocates from across the country have gathered on the site of Ball State's new downtown Indianapolis extension to carry on the work begun at our Free Speech in Schools conference last October in Chicago, and revisited this winter in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the Poynter Institute. The goal here is to discuss recent developments in this policy area, including the failed student press bill in Washington state and emerging efforts in the same spirit elsewhere (Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina...). We also hope to craft a model school policy that reflects the realities of school management specific to pedagogical and disciplinary requirements, but also places the First Amendment on a pedestal.

I'll share the fruits of our deliberations in a post later this week. The assembled group is long on talent, energy, and experience, so I am bullish about the good that can come through "strength in numbers" as it pertains to student speech advocacy.


From the Gates Early

By Shawn Healy
On the eve of the Kentucky Derby, I can't help but reference the horse race that is the 2008 presidential election. The Republicans held their first of TWELVE scheduled debates last evening at the Reagan Museum and Library, while the Democrats met last week in South Carolina for the first of SIXTEEN debates.

I'll play the part of pundit below, but as a self-described political junkie I marveled at the interactive features offered by the modern candidate forum. While Bill Clinton made the town hall style format his own,, a sponsor of last night's debate along with MSNBC, brought the auditorium to our livings rooms. The site allowed viewers to select questions submitted beforehand for each individual candidate. There were three options for each candidate, and the questions came from the general public. While some of the questions left much to be desired (e.g., How many troops have died in Iraq), and I managed to vote with the minority on all ten, the concept itself was the biggest winner on Thursday evening. Here's hoping it resurfaces throughout the presidential contest that has only EIGHTEEN months remaining.

The debate itself was dominated by a man not in attendance, the namesake of the museum, Ronald Reagan. Most candidates went out of their way to embrace the Gipper, and with a few exceptions ran far away from the current occupant. Moreover, one can't help but think about the impact that Fred Thompson's candidacy could have on the race. The Law and Order star may be in the missing link in a field arguably lacking a mainstream conservative. Thomson, Fred, not Tommy, didn't have a flag-themed podium, but his 6'6" shadow looms large over the unsettled GOP field.

What follows is my assessment of candidate performances. In the spirit of my former career as a teacher, I assign each a subjective grade. I'll start with the three favorites and make my way to the back of the field.

Governor Mitt Romney: Hefty fundraiser looked and talked presidential. Although his responses sometimes lacked substance, he was the clear winner among the three frontrunners, Fred Thompson excluded. Grade: A.

Senator John McCain: Started slowly, but his experience came through in the end. Still missing the maverick magic of 2000. Grade: B.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani: If you understand where he stands on abortion please explain. He was jittery, repeatedly referenced his accomplishment of cutting crime in New York, and stumbled through a response to a question about the differences between Shiia and Sunni Muslims. Grade: D.

Governor Tommy Thompson: Perhaps the most issue-oriented and policy savvy of the ten participants, he fails to exude the charisma of Romney. Grade: B.

Governor Huckabee: Impressive grasp of policy and evidence of strong executive experience through pragmatic governance. Grade: B.

Senator Sam Brownback
: Clearly comfortable behind the podium, he, along with Huckabee, is the most socially conservative candidate. Defended the use of faith to guide policy positions. Grade: B-.

Governor James Gilmore: Unpolished, erratic, and mostly incoherent. Field still waiting for the "true conservative" who can win on the day of the race. Grade: D.

Representative Duncan Hunter: Emphasized strong defense abroad and border control. Not clear why he's in the race. Debate performance didn't help. Grade: D.

Representative Tom Tancredo: Uncomfortable with the debate format, a single issue (immigration) candidate, seemed alternately boorish and aristocratic. Grade: D-.

Representative Ron Paul: Who? Even I was unfamiliar with the Texas congressman entering the evening... He played the role of Mike Gravel in the Democratic debate, who managed to make Dennis Kucinich appear mainstream. Thanks to Rep. Paul, the same can be said about Tom Tancredo. Grade: F.


Stop the Student Press!

By Shawn Healy
I authored an article for the April issue of Political Science and Politics devoted to exploring the state of the political cartoon. My piece, entitled "Stop the Student Press: Editorial Cartooning on College Campuses," documents a tendency for student cartoonists to push the proverbial envelope while operating in a more restrictive legal environment. The article was inspired by the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy that began in Denmark in September 2005 and ignited a global firestorm in the months that followed. America's universities were the laboratories for the publication of these offensive images at home, and the fallout they inspired did not bode well for college press freedom.


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