Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Wrapping Up the Year

By Shawn Healy
This post represents my final musings of the year, and coincides with the last edition of Freedom and the First Amendment in the News. What a ride it has been since the new year dawned, from the thrilling caucus and primary season that began on a cold January day in Iowa, to the historic victory of President-elect Barack Obama on November 4. The most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression strangled our nation's well-being by early fall, and the revelations of alleged wrongdoing by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his associates just last week further tainted the political culture in the state I call home.

As we look forward to 2009, the inauguration of our nation's first African-American president takes place on January 20th. Perhaps it's fitting that the last president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, will be honored throughout the year on the bicentennial of his birth, February 12, 1809. Surely there will be a great deal of emphasis placed on Obama's first 100 days, a period made famous by another president Obama is often compared to, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entered office at a time of economic crisis and inspired a nation to persevere and eventually emerge stronger on what came to be known as the Great Depression.

Closer to home, the impeachment proceedings against Governor Blagojevich are certain to move forward, alongside the federal investigation that spawned the criminal charges that inspired the former. There will be a special election in the 5th Congressional District as Congressman Rahm Emmanuel has accepted Obama's invitation to serve as his Chief of Staff. Perhaps simultaneously, the jockeying behind Obama's now vacant Senate seat will result in either a controversial appointment by Blagojevich or his successor, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, or a statewide special election instead.

Before long, candidates will begin testing the waters for a run at statewide office in 2010, and the Governor's mansion and the aforementioned Senate seat will stand among the most lucrative prizes. The fallout from the Blagojevich scandal is sure to reshape the complexion of an already crowded field.

The media industry itself will continue to face its most stern test in at least a generation as advertising revenues plummet and consumers continue to tune out. The fate of the Chicago Tribune is just one of many entities on life support. From the depths of a financial crisis three generations have never known, the industry must reinvent itself with a still elusive new business model.

From many angles, the scene is dire, but hope lingers and Americans (including the disillusioned residents of Illinois) are ready for concrete actions and concerted inspiration as we contribute to the historic idea that is the United States of America. So farewell to 2008, and thank you for the fleeting fond memories, and we welcome 2009, seeking a new chapter to this ongoing struggle for freedom at home and abroad.


A Fitzmas Special?

By Shawn Healy
Time to resume our regularly scheduled recount of the political drama sweeping Illinois politics with only seven shopping days remaining in a season that has already been recast as "Fitzmas." It is named after U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who spearheaded an investigation of Illinois Governor Rod Blagoveich that has set off a feeding frenzy amid the holiday cheer.

Yesterday, the Illinois House took the first steps in an effort to impeach the sitting Governor, who was charged of orchestrating several pay-to-play schemes in a criminal complaint filed by Fitzgerald's office one week ago. A committee was formed and is set to meet today, composed of 12 Democrats and 9 Republicans. Like the federal process, if the charges are voted out of committee and also passed by the full House (all 113 members on hand yesterday voted in favor of beginning the proceedings), a trial is conducted in the State Senate.

Blagojevich could reasonably be convicted on impeachment charges and be removed from office, while also facing the federal criminal charges in a separate investigation. However, according to this New York Times piece, the allegations against Blagojevich specific to his scheming over the replacement of President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat may not hold up in court.

Speaking of the vacancy, the scrambling continues behind the scenes as to the process by which the seat will be filled. Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, should Blagojevich be relieved of his duties in one fashion or another, would have the power by law to make an appointment for the remaining two years of the term.

Last week, Quinn immediately called for a change to the law, allowing for a special election to coincide with previously scheduled municipal elections this coming spring. He then backtracked and claimed he was more than capable of making the decision himself. Most recently, he recalibrated his position once more, suggesting that he would make an immediate appointment so that Illinois had two senators serving on Day One of Obama's presidency, and a special election would follow to determine the individual who would serve the final two years of the term. Quinn promised that he would not appoint himself.

I remind you that Blagojevich is still the Governor and is thus fully capable of naming Obama's replacement until the day he is officially relieved of his duties. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged that he would not accept a replacement named by Blagojevich, and the Senate holds this authority to bar new members, so this checkmate stands.

Meanwhile, there is activity in the State Senate to move forward with a special election, although it is being pushed by Republicans and does not have the support of Senate President Emil Jones, a Democrat, at least as of now. The House adjourned yesterday after the impeachment vote, meaning that if it does act upon a special election measure, this will not take place until mid-January.

As citizens, it is interesting to watch from the sidelines as this political circus performs daily routines during the "Fitzmas" season, but perhaps we can do more. I invite you to weigh in on this blog with your own recommended solutions to this quagmire. Moreover, if you are a resident of Illinois, I encourage you to call your state representative and senator, or Lt. Gov. Quinn for that matter, and to voice your feelings about the various measures under debate (click here to find out who they are and to access their contact information). We, too, can play a role in cleaning up this pile of corrupt politics.


All the News That's Fit to Profit

By Shawn Healy
The fallout from Tuesday's revelations that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich presided over a pay-to-play scheme to enrich himself, his family, and his political supporters at the expense of taxpayers is wide-ranging, reaching as far as the largest newspaper in the Midwest, the Chicago Tribune.

As you may recall, the a financial adviser of the Tribune, since identified, engaged in negotiations with the Governor's Office over the potential sale of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field. They sought assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority, and Blagojevich asked for a targeted purging of the Tribune editorial board in exchange. He focused specifically on those members pushing for his impeachment, and John McCormick allegedly stood front and center. Thankfully, although the Tribune continues with extensive layoffs, McCormick and the board were spared, at least for the time being.

Tribune CEO Sam Zell denies any direct pressure from Blagojevich, and Editor in Chief Gerry Kern said he and the newsroom he presides over were likewise immune. The paper was asked to hold stories about the federal investigation of the governor, and they at least partially obliged. One wonders if their reporting last Friday and again on Tuesday morning drove U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to arrest Blagojevich and bring charges prematurely as their operations would be undermined from that point forward.

These developments raise several issues specific to the Tribune, but also of general concern as we speak of press freedoms nationally. The First Amendment protects freedom of the press, but it is by no means absolute, and instead faces constant challenge across the ages as issues like prior restraint, source anonymity, and libel enter the fray.

Prior restraint, or the preapproval of stories for publication, is generally frowned upon, with exceptions during times of war and perhaps other extraneous cases. It did not occur in this instance, at least not in its purest form, but the tensions between government authorities and a free press were certainly in play.

Source anonymity also played a role as the Tribune relied upon insider access to reveal the ongoing federal investigation, but it was never challenged as they probably didn't possess any information not already in the hands of the Feds.

Libel is also unlikely given that reporting on Governor Blagojevich, his Chief of Staff John Harris, and others potentially implicated by the investigation, are public figures. The 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan raised to bar for law suits filed by government officials seeking a libel judgment, mandating that plaintiffs must show "actual malice," or prove that the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." Given the press release and affidavit provided by Fitzgerald, the Tribune is in the clear.

These constitutional staples aside, the broader issue of how the Tribune came to be implicated in this budding scandal warrants consideration. The Tribune's involvement with the Governor's Office is a product of its link to the media conglomerate of the same name, which in addition to newspapers, radio, and television stations, also owns the Chicago Cubs. In seeking to sell the latter on account of looming debt payments, the company was forced to "play ball" with a politician who was all-too-ready to deal.

The Tribune declared bankruptcy this week, and its dire financial straights are indicative of the industry as a whole. The debt-leveraged deal that Sam Zell presided over a year ago didn't help matters when revenues continued to crash, but newspapers have been on a downward trajectory for some time. As readers have migrated away from print to the Internet (or away from news consumption altogether), advertising revenues that pay the vast portion of the industry's bills failed to follow for the most part. True, online advertising has proliferated, but it is not nearly as lucrative and must compete with free sites like Craigslist in the realm of classified ads.

The general contraction of the economy has only escalated these trends, and it has affected newspapers far outside of Chicago. For instance, the venerable New York Times was forced to take a loan against the value of its iconic building to finance existing debt. Other newspapers, like Madison's Capitol Times and the Christian Science Monitor have become Internet-only vehicles. Home delivery of newspapers is also on the decline, with a rumor that Detroit's two major dailies, the Free Press and the News, will soon discontinue with this service.

We may be witnessing the extinction of print journalism as we know it, and this is arguably detrimental to democracy. True, many newspapers will move forward with an online presence, but with the economic model still broken, expect spartan staffs, excessive reliance on wire feeds, and a shift away from critical, yet expensive, investigative journalism that holds our public officials accountable.

My solutions to this tragic tale are few, for we live in unprecedented times. Further consolidation of the news industry, for better or for worse, is probably inevitable and may allow organizations to stay alive through economies of scale. A non-profit model like Pro Publica may emerge, subsidizing investigative journalism and featuring the best work compiled elsewhere. Perhaps philanthropists will enter the scene, purchasing papers and willingly operating at a loss with the public good top of mind.

A more likely scenario is for news organizations to mold an online model that is indeed profitable. Perhaps Apple's iTunes can stand as a guiding light, as the music sharing industry moved away from piracy to profit.

Whatever the outcome, savvy news consumers wait on the sidelines, hoping for the best, but witnessing the slow death of a daily friend we hold near and dear to our hearts. At the end of a trying week, at least the bankrupt Chicago Tribune emerged with its dignity in tact. When it's all said and done, let's hope we can say the same about the industry.


Pay-to-Play Parable

By Shawn Healy
A political firebomb was dropped on the State on Illinois on Tuesday, and the fallout from this "crime of the century" has yet to be fully documented. While I certainly don't possess any more damning evidence or innuendo than already exists, my hope is to bring some clarity to the flurry of news coverage that has since blanketed the state.

Included within are a few major story lines of recent weeks and days that combine to make this the perfect storm. First, Chicago has been in the limelight a lot of late given the rise of President-elect Obama, his residence on the south side of the city, and its role as a co-star in the historic election night speech in Grant Park.

Second, Obama's ascendance opened his Senate seat to the whims of the current Governor, Rod Blagojevich, who holds the sole power of replacement. Speculation his swirled in recent weeks as a host of local politicians have campaigned publicly and privately for the position, including Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., Congressman Danny Davis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. The Governor had promised the fill the seat before long, perhaps by the end of the year.

Third, in what seems like a departure, but I ask you to hold on the for crescendo, the Chicago Tribune declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday. This came on the heels of Sam Zell's debt-leveraged buy-out of the media giant a little more than a year ago. As advertising revenues fell and the economy tanked, the Tribune was unable to make its debt payments despite recurring layoffs, resulting in a move to restructure the organization and renegotiate loan agreements.

Fourth, it has long been anticipated that our sitting Governor would meet the same fate as his predecessor, namely a criminal investigation yielding indictments while in office, and ultimately a prison sentence shortly after his departure. Last Friday, the Chicago Tribune presented clear evidence that the Fed's were on his trail in reporting that a close aide wore a wire and captured damning evidence of corruption. A follow-up story on Tuesday tied this same investigation to Blagojevich's quest to fill the Senate seat with perhaps a sweetened pot for the political benefactor.

Fifth, there has been a long-running investigation of political fundraiser and developer Antonin "Tony" Rezko, who raised money for Governor Blagojevich in exchange for political influence, appointments, regulatory body rulings, etc. Rezko, incidentally, is also tied a controversial real estate deal that President-elect Obama participated in back in 2006, where the two shared adjacent properties, and Obama received a portion of Rezko's land at a severely discounted price. While it appears that Obama is guilty here of nothing more than his self-described "bone-headed" decision to do business with an indicted and since convicted felon, it does speak to the pervasive culture of political corruption that envelopes this state. Incidentally, Rezko faces sentencing on January 6th.

These five variables came together Tuesday morning as US Attorney ordered the arrest of Blagojevich and his Chief of Staff, John Harris, then conducted a press coverage and made some of the damning details of the investigation he spearheaded public. I will tie them together in order.

One, to state the obvious, Chicago has long been known as a city of corruption since at least the days of Capone, and in the seven decades since under the guise of a political machine that dominated city, county, and often state politics. President-elect Obama helped to rehabilitate it some, though us locals knew that he was somehow able to rise above this embedded malfeasance, not rid us of the pervasive stench. Now the nation knows the name of our defamed Governor and the corrupt regime he presided over. In short, the shine of the new "Camelot" was dulled with one fell swoop.

Two, Governor Blagojevich's dealings centered specifically on a "pay-to-play" system of filling the vacated Senate seat. Several potential candidates are referenced anonymously in the affidavit, though none appear guilty by implication as of yet. It is widely speculated that Senate Candidate 1 is Valerie Plame, once though to be Obama's favored choice for his replacement, but now one of his top advisers. The wheeling and dealing of a surrogate of Senate Candidate 5, widely speculated to be Rep. Jackson, has also entered the fray, with the south side congressman expected to speak to the FBI tomorrow.

Blagojevich retains the power of replacing Obama until he either leaves office upon resignation, impeachment, or incapacitation, or the state legislation changes the means by which the process unfolds. Resignation is unlikely, and the impeachment process would probably take a significant amount of time to administer. It is possible, even likely, that the state legislature will vote to revoke the Governor's appointment power and call for a special election, but such a measure would require the governor's action. If something is passed in the near future, it allows the Governor 60 days to act, and the current legislature term expires within this time period, meaning they would be forced to try again early next year and perhaps wait it out once more. A veto can be overriden, but it requires executive action.

Interestingly enough, Blagojevich could make his appointment any day now, but the U.S. Senate reserves the right to refuse to seat a new member, and such a scenario is all but a given should he choose to act in such a bold, swift manner.

In the interim, a vacant seat deprives President-elect of a Democratic vote as he attempts to enact his ambitious agenda during the first 100 days of office. He currently is working with a Senate majority of 55 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the party, leaving him 3 votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority (this could change to two should Al Franken prevail in the Minnesota recount).

Three, the affidavit references bargaining between the since-bankrupt Tribune and the Governor's office over the anticipated sale of the Chicago Cubs and preferential tax treatment the state could extend. In exchange, the Governor allegedly sought to have select members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board fired for their consistent criticism of his administration and even a call for impeachment. To date, the Tribune has continued with its payroll slashing, but the editorial board has been spared, so it does not appear that CEO Sam Zell and company engaged in the proposed "pay-to-play" scheme, though he too has spoken with the FBI.

Four, the charges we were introduced to on Tuesday morning were shocking, even to those who expected that Blagojevich would be indicted before his current term expired in 2010. Having known that the Feds had their eyes fixed on his official conduct, it is beyond audacious that he apparently continued with his scheme to enrich himself, his family, and friends at the expense of state taxpayers. From this vantagepoint, it is difficult to see him avoiding the verdict of three of his recent predecessors: prison.

Five, and probably most pertinent to those who reside outside of the Land of Lincoln, it remains to be seen how the fallout of this scandal will impact the incoming administration of the President-elect. It appears as if the Obama-Blagojevich relationship has been distant in recent years, though Obama did endorse the incumbent Governor in 2006 and served on a small advisory committee for him during his first run from the position in 2002 along with his pick for Chief-of-Staff, Rahm Emmanuel. Any negotiations that the transition team had with the Governor's office will also be scrutinized. Tony Rezko, the man who ties the two together, will also be part of the equation as he speaks with federal investigators in a bid to reduce his pending sentencing.

This long-winded recount of the events of the past couple of days is by no means comprehensive and stands as only my first entry into this thicket of corruption close to home. My next post will address the threats to press freedoms that this case raises, and I will certainly weigh in on the pending drama over the vacant Senate seat as events unfold. Hold on tight, for I have a feeling that this political thriller is only in its first chapter.


Evergreen Grumbling

By Shawn Healy
The air has turned cold, snow flakes permeate the sky, and holiday cheer envelops the streets and sidewalks. Accompanying these seasonal rituals are the latest installments in our nation's culture wars that seem to come to a head during the month of December. This year, we travel to Olympia, Washington, the site of the state capitol and a rotunda where a holiday tree is positioned alongside a menorah, par for the course in this increasingly inclusive season. What is new is a sign from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) declaring the following:

“Our message at this season of the winter solstice is may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

The organization has placed the same sign in Wisconsin's state capitol in Madison (its home town), and, before long, also plans to install one in Springfield, Illinois. FFRF stands behind the argument that state capitols are public forums, and by allowing various religious entities to place their seasonal displays there, they open the door for similar exhibits from non-believers.

Surprisingly, not a single lawsuit has been filed, yet Fox News host Bill O'Reilly has made waves by devoting a significant segment of his show last week to the issue, equating the FFRF sign with hate speech, and prompting his viewers to flood Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire with phone calls and emails. Despite this disdain, Gregoire stands on firm legal ground.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on similar cases in years past, allowing a creche to remain in a Pawtucket, Rhode Island park alongside Santa Claus and reindeer pulling his sleigh. Writing for the majority in Lynch v. Donnelly, Chief Justice Warren Burger argued that Thanksgiving and Christmas are national holidays, and seasonal celebrations of our nation's religious roots are sanctioned, for they do not constitute the government's endorsement or establishment of religion. He identified a secular purpose to these displays, thus situating them within the context of the so-called Lemon Test.

In a follow-up case, County of Allegheny County v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court ruled against a manger scene displayed in an Allegheny (PA) County courthouse, but allowed a seasonal display featuring a Christmas tree and menorah to remain outside a city-county building located only a block away. Both the county and the City of Pittsburgh erected each display, and in the case of the former, were viewed as endorsing a particular form of religion, namely Christianity. According to Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote for the majority, this was punctuated by the fact that the creche stood alone inside a government building.

One more piece of historical evidence may be useful in this case, namely the fight over the display of monuments on public property. The 2005 case Van Orden v. Perry concerned the constitutionality of the placement of a monument honoring the Ten Commandments on the lawn of the Texas statehouse. The majority referenced the Lynch decision, and placed the monument in a historic, contextual framework, given that it was privately donated, stood there for more than 40 years, and the fact that our legal system is at least partially based on these religious edicts.

Given this body of case law, despite the consternation of Bill O'Reilly and his fellow culture warriors, it seems as if the compromises in Washington, Wisconsin, and likely Illinois, are both sound and satisfactory to the major parties represented at the seasonal table.

However, an interesting wrinkle centers on a case the Court is currently considering. It involves the Summum faith and their desire to place a statue of the "Seven Aphorisms" of their faith in a public park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, alongside that of a Ten Commandments memorial donated to the city for display in 1971. The city denied their request, and the Summums filed suit. At issue here is not the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, but instead a charge that Pleasant Grove City engaged in viewpoint discrimination in what the Summum's consider government speech. Their point likely holds water if this is true, but if it is instead considered private speech, they will likely have to look elsewhere to install the Seven Aphorisms statute.

It is unlikely that we'll have resolution of this case prior to the end of this year's installment of the seasonal culture wars, but we'll watch for any breakthrough that may impact our yuletide cheer. The moral of the story is that the First Amendment stands paramount, even with holiday shopping, office parties, and travel tugging at our winter sleeves. From where I stand, Governor Gregoire respected the central tenets of the five freedoms and brokered a compromise, seasonal shouting aside, that should last until the dawn of a new year.


Constitutional Corners

By Shawn Healy
I knew that the Chicago Tribune was officially in trouble when I came across full page ads in both Monday's and Wednesday's papers questioning the citizenship of President-elect Barack Obama and his ability to serve as president. They were sponsored by the We the People Foundation for Constitutional Education, and the paper proceeded to debunk these claims in an article also published on Wednesday.

Traditionally, newspapers have maintained that there exists a firm separation between the editorial and business side of their operations, but in this environment where the economic model of modern journalism is threatened, this firewall has been undeniably penetrated. Indeed, Fitch Ratings predicts that many communities will do without newspapers as early as next year as advertising revenues dip and print readership continues its long-term slide.

Is there any substance to the claim published in the aforementioned ad? Two Tribune reporters seemingly debunked the charges point-for-point, yet a flurry of lawsuits considering the issue of Obama's qualifications for office.

Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution reads as follows: "No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States."

The suits (and the ad) take issue with the fact that Obama is a natural-born citizen, and none other than the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on Friday whether or not to consider an appeal. It takes the votes of four the nine justices to grant any appeal a hearing before the body, and such a controversy would certainly attract the attention of the country like no case since the 2000 ruling that declared the presidential election over, Bush v. Gore. At issue this time around is whether the plaintiff has the requisite standing as a mere citizen to bring such charges as one of 300 million.

The legal front is never a lonely one, and the incoming Obama Administration may be preoccupied with yet another constitutional challenge, this one centering on Senator Hillary Clinton's fitness to serve as Secretary of State. A conservative legal group, Judicial Watch, charges that Clinton's nomination violates Article 1, Section 6, Clause 2 of the Constitution, that reads as follows: "No Senator or Representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office under the authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time."

Because Clinton voted in favor of a pay increase for the position she is set to assume while serving as a sitting senator, Judicial Watch alleges, she is ineligible to stand as the next Secretary of State until her current term in the Senate ends in 2013. The Obama Administration is said to be aware of these complications, and may either encourage Congress to reduce her compensation to the prior level or ask that she refuse the pay increase on a personal level. In the end, this is probably once more much ado about nothing, and she may be able to receive the full compensation she voted in favor of seven years ago.

More than anything, these charges, no matter how remotely accurate, raise the issue of the supremacy and utility of our Constitution. That we hold our office holders in 2009 to the standards established in 1787 is a testament to the longevity and continuity of the oldest written constitution in the world.


What does a citizen in a democratic society need to learn?

By Shawn Healy
I was asked to address this question at an Educator Salon tomorrow hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In my preparations for the talk, I began by pondering the way in which political knowledge is measured by most experts, namely in the form of multiple choice questions centered on what we should have learned in high school civics (if the course was even offered). Period surveys report "shocking" findings that reveal the dismal state of civic knowledge across our citizenry. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute's report titled Our Fading Heritage that I wrote about last week is but the most recent example.

The Freedom Museum joined the parade ourselves with a 2006 survey demonstrating that Americans are much more adept at identifying the five members of television's Simpson's family than the five freedoms embedded within the First Amendment. Taken together, these measures shame the public, and are often coupled with a call to action. For the Freedom Museum, the Simpson's survey stood as the very validation of our mission, to inspire our visitors to understand, value and protect the First Amendment to expand the scope of freedom for everyone, today and for future generations.

Long ago, I contrived a basic model of effective citizenship for use in my high school government classes. It was premised on the dual principles of knowledge and activism, where individuals are ranked on each count and placed in a corresponding matrix. Logically, effective citizens rank high on each facet, while pundits lack activism, and patrons knowledge. Bench warmers are low in each category. For the purposes of classification, I asked a series of questions and calculated the scores based on these answers. A modified version of this test is posted on the Freedom Museum's web site.

In refining this test for the purposes of tomorrow's talk, I balanced my inner political junkie and the fact that I study political science for a living with the reality that most Americans, when it comes to politics, are "rational misers." This means that they consume political information only sporadically, if at all. Political participation must be placed beside the interests of our jobs, families, friends, and other obligations.

In short, we learn the minimum amount necessary to keep our heads above water, and participate only periodically, mostly in election seasons, and usually only those of the presidential variety. We evaluate candidates on the basis of personality and backgrounds rather than policy positions, and in the end, these practices are inherently rational given the high costs of staying informed and participating at a level beyond voting.

This said, I simply refuse to respond to the aforementioned question with a less than optimal standard by which we may assess our own preparations for our role as citizens in a democratic society. I attempted to stray from the factual questions that characterize the quizzes I lampooned above, but nonetheless raise the bar quite high.

For the sake of a round number, I constructed a ten-question measurement of what a citizen needs to know. It reads as follows:
1. A functional understanding of our structures of government and how they impact our lives.
2. An appreciation for civil liberties so we can remain constantly vigilant should they be threatened.
3. The ability to identify our elected officials, along with their actions in office? Also, do they deserve re-election, and how may we hold them accountable in the interim?
4. What are the major issues facing society and how will candidates for elected office address them?
5. The ability to consider both personal and societal interests.
6. Along the same lines, consideration of global interests alongside those of nation, state, and city/ town.
7. Knowledge of the means of participation in the political process, from campaigns and elections to actual governance.
8. The possession of sound communication skills, including reading, writing, and speaking.
9. Regular media monitoring from a variety of sources, including consideration of information to which we are predisposed to agree and disagree.
10. A proclivity to and comfort with engaging in political discussions, even with individuals who share dissimilar political values.

This list is by no means refined, and I invite your comments and criticisms. Perhaps collectively we can answer this question adequately, as for many of us, myself included, this is our defining mission in life.


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