Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Marketplace Manifestations

By Shawn Healy
My op-ed piece that ran in the Monday edition of the Chicago Tribune created quite a stir if reader feedback is any indication. Some of my critics were scathing, others constructive, and all contributed to the “marketplace of ideas” enabled by the First Amendment that I defend in the column.

What follows is a sample of their writing, and my responses to each.

You have to be kidding. I thought that the first amendment was in place to allow speech of all types as long as not dangerous to the public (yelling fire in a theater). I do not believe the First Amendment means that public schools need to promote all types of speech. Mr. Ayers is free to speak wherever he is welcome. Noon at Tribune Plaza would be great. However, Mr. Ayers is not entitled to an invitation anywhere.—William J. Peters

You are correct Mr. Peters in your point that the five freedoms of the First Amendment are not absolute. Boston College is a private university and therefore exempt from the dictates of the First Amendment. Naperville North is supported by taxpayer dollars and is a public institution, meaning the First Amendment is in play. Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), said that “freedom of speech does not end at the schoolhouse gate.” The Supreme Court has proceeded to curtail student speech in successive decisions during the intervening four decades.

In this case, the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) ruling governs, permitting administrative censorship of speech facilitated by the school, assemblies included, for “legitimate pedagogical reasons.” However, just because the Naperville superintendent is on solid legal ground, it doesn’t mean that he reacted appropriately. In inviting Ayers and later rescinding the offer, he taught students that freedom of speech exists to the extent that a majority (or even a vocal minority) agrees with it.

Where is The Freedom Museum's article about Ann Coulter (another divisive figure) being kept from the public college podium because some advocacy group didn't like what they thought the students might hear (and believe me, I am not a big fan of hers.)--Renee Baker

Ms. Baker, I am no fan of Bill Ayers myself (nor Ann Coulter for that matter). This issue is much larger than either of them. As a college student, I was often frustrated when various conservative speakers, from Ward Connerly to David Horowitz, were shouted down by hypocrites on the left who only wanted their personal beliefs confirmed. I defend Bill Ayers so that Ann Coulter, Christian voices, even the leader of the Minuteman Militia can also speak on campus and elsewhere.

In my current duties at the Freedom Museum, I do my very best to cast aside my personal biases when I speak or write. I believe that through offering a balanced perspective on various freedom-related issues, we can spawn a civilized debate that advances our democratic society. Such conversations are sorely lacking nowadays as ideologues prefer to retreat to their respective echo chambers. More than anything, we live the legacy of Robert R. McCormick, who considered the principles of the First Amendment inviolable.

The last sentence of your commentary restored some faith in the previous sentences of your commentary. "Who knows, in a market place where ideas are forced to compete both parties may actually learn something from one another" However no where in your commentary did I see you make mention of universities that will allow all types of groups speak but the United States military is refused that opportunity. I also did not read a sentence that supported the rights of an organization that is opposed to abortions to speak on a college campus. I believe and I hope it is your belief that all ideas forced to compete are not denied a forum in the universities and colleges of this nation.—John Alukos

Amen, Mr. Alukos. I am every bit as disgusted as you when these groups are denied their constitutional rights and academic freedom is curtailed in the process. Our college campuses should serve as bastions of free thought and not self-contained social cascades. When conservative causes are censored I promise to raise my voice once more in support of the marketplace of ideas where truth emerges through competition.

First, those "dissenting voices" were parents of the kids in that classroom. They were voices of taxpayers who would pay for the facilities that would have hosted that class. They were the voices of a public concerned about placing a suspected domestic terrorist on an ideological pedestal.

Second, there's a huge difference between a publicly-funded high school and a privately-funded university. It was freedom of speech in action that pushed school authorities to retract the misguided invitation.

As a U.S. citizen, there is no question Bill Ayers has a right to speak, as he does as professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. At the same time, "dissenting voices" have a right to keep him from spouting his angry, anti-American rhetoric on high school aged students attending class per the state's compulsory attendance law.--Fran Eaton, Editor, Illinois Review

Ms. Eaton, I concur that the dissenting voices were parents, but they canceled out an equal number of affirmative voices of taxpaying parents. I agree that Mr. Ayers’ past actions are reprehensible, but Naperville North officials knew this going in. Indeed, it this notoriety, for better or for worse, that makes him an interesting, if controversial, speaker.

As to your second point, the dissenting parents did exercise their First Amendment rights, and in this case, the hecklers won. By rescinding Ayers’ speaking invitation, the Naperville Superintendent suggested that freedom of speech is malleable and subject to the whims of a vocal minority.

Finally, just to clarify, Ayers was not scheduled to speak to the entire school. Instead, students enrolled in classes with related curriculum were eligible to attend on the condition that they furnish signed parental permission slips.

Good point but where does religious freedom play into the equation? Notre Dame is a Catholic organization and Catholicism is the largest denomination of the largest religion (Christianity) in the world and the Catholic Church has never wavered in its stance on life. So don’t they have the right to freedom of religion?—John Miller

Notre Dame’s existence as an institution is an embodiment of freedom of religion under the First Amendment, Mr. Miller. They are free to exercise their Catholic beliefs, and apply them as an ideological litmus test for speakers that occupy the pulpit they provide. In this case, President Obama’s status as the leader of the free world trumped his contrary views on abortion and stem cell research, among other issues.

Do you really believe that Naperville North's decision not to have Bill Ayers speak is a 1st Amendment issue? How silly. You are a director of a "Freedom Museum" and you have no idea what freedom is. People have a right to express themselves, they do not have a right to have their opinions expressed wherever they want, be it a newspaper, website or school. In fact, I demand you publish this email on the homepage of your website. If not, you are guilty of the same stifling of free speech that you accuse BC and Naperville North of. As my lawyer wife and I were laughing over breakfast today at the stupidity of your premise, I turned to my 18 year old daughter and told her she should try to get a job in the non-profit sector when she gets out of school. The competition must be very easy.--Jerry Wood

Ouch! I’ll allow my previous responses to address the finer points of your critique, but will reprint your email verbatim, Mr. Wood, as a sign of my commitment to the marketplace of ideas powered by the First Amendment. I sincerely hope that your daughter flourishes in an environment of academic freedom as she enters college, and welcome her to apply for a position with the Freedom Museum upon graduation.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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