Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


More vigils planned for journalists detained in North Korea

By Jamie Loo
Press suppression on an upward trend, expert says.

By Jamie Loo
Freedom Museum reporter

CHICAGO— After more than two months in jail, two American journalists will be facing trial in North Korea next week, at a time when international tensions with the country are growing over missiles testing.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists from San Francisco-based Current TV, were arrested near the North Korean border on March 17 while reporting on refugees living in China, according to the Associated Press. The journalists from the cable television and online company, which former vice-president Al Gore is the co-founder and chairman of, have been accused by North Korean officials of illegal entry and committing “hostile acts.” The two are awaiting trial on June 4 on these unspecified charges, which according to the AP could carry up to 10 years in prison.

Media reports have speculated that Lee and Ling are being detained as pawns in the political games North Korea is playing with other countries on issues such as nuclear firearms. North Korea’s latest test-firing of missiles on Monday and Tuesday drew criticism from the international community, including China and Russia which have traditionally been the country’s allies.

Vigils are being planned in U.S. cities such as Washington D.C. and San Francisco on June 3, which is June 4 in North Korea, to raise awareness about the journalists’ imprisonment. Last week vigils were held in Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Portland and in Chicago on Daley Plaza.

Speakers at the Chicago vigil spoke about the importance of press freedom throughout the world and urged people to contact their elected officials and the media to raise awareness about this case. Organizers handed out 200 yellow carnations with photos of Lee and Ling tied to them and asked people to write messages of support on a banner to send to their families.

Committee to Protect Journalists deputy director Robert Mahoney said publicity for this case hasn’t been widespread and he isn’t sure what effect public pressure will have on the situation. Mahoney said there is a lot of speculation about why Lee and Ling are being detained, and he fears it may be part of a misguided attempt by North Korea to resolve issues with the U.S. in the Korean peninsula. Journalists are sometimes kidnapped as political bargaining chips, he said, but that it doesn’t happen every day. Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, said public pressure for the journalists’ release may work but that if it does, North Korea would never admit that it played a role.

“This case is really about pressuring (President Barack) Obama to pay attention to North Korea,” Cumings said.

The political pressure points in each country are different, Mahoney said, and in the case of Roxana Saberi, public and diplomatic pressure made a difference. Saberi, a journalist accused of spying, was detained in Iran and released on May 18. He said it’s difficult to compare Iran to North Korea because Iran is a more open country, has a judiciary system and is more responsive to political pressure. The strategies used for the release of detained journalists vary, Mahoney said, and are based on the wishes of their families, media outlets, situation in the country they’re being held in and who is detaining them. Generally, some families and media outlets choose not to go public about detained or kidnapped journalists because of safety and other diplomatic concerns.

Chicago ties

Nancy Loo, co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association- Chicago, read a letter from television journalist Lisa Ling on behalf of the Lee and Ling families at the vigil. Lisa is Laura’s sister and lived in Chicago before moving to L.A. in 2007.

“We know that our government is working very hard to secure their release, but given the sensitivity of the situation and the fact that our two countries have no diplomatic relationship, our families are not making any public comments other than to thank you so very much for coming out to support our girls,” the letter read.

Alex Castro, a journalist who worked with Laura Ling in L.A., said Laura has “always been passionate about helping people” and that she is going to be deeply moved when she finds out about the outpouring of support for her and Lee.

Richie Porter, a representative from Sen. Roland Burris’ office, said U.S. residents rely on the work of journalists overseas to keep people informed about international affairs and that the congressman hopes for Lee and Ling’s safe return. Asian American Bar Association president Anne Shaw said there are human rights violations occurring all over the world that we don’t know about. She said journalists like Ling and Lee are needed to shed the light on these issues.

“Every day journalists from free countries risk their lives to tell the truth,” said local journalist Joanie Lum.

Lum said change can happen when the public begins to ask questions, gets the media involved and reaches out to public officials. Lee and Ling cannot be forgotten, she said, and the more attention the case receives the more everyone can help their cause.

Press freedom ‘fragile’

Because the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic ties with North Korea, the U.S. Department of State is working through the Swedish ambassador to the country. The ambassador’s last visit with the journalists was on March 30. Mahoney said it’s not clear what charges the two journalists are being held on and that there is no information on whether they will have due process or legal representation before a North Korean court. North Korea has no independent press, he said, and is one of the most heavily censored countries in the world. Mahoney said any news the international community receives about the trial will come from state-controlled media in the country.

Press freedom around the world has eroded over the past decade, Mahoney said, and following the Sept. 11 attacks more countries began using national security and terrorism concerns as reasons to jail journalists. Freedom House, which also publishes an annual index on global media independence, reported that only 17 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with a free press. In 2000, CPJ reported that 81 journalists were imprisoned worldwide and by the end of 2001 Mahoney said that figure jumped to 137. CPJ has documented at least 125 journalists who are currently being detained worldwide.

The rise of the Internet is also a contributing factor to press suppression, Mahoney said, because it has given a voice to people in countries with limited free press. He said 2008 was the first time the number of online journalists imprisoned worldwide exceeded journalists from more traditional mediums.

“Press freedom is a fragile thing and it needs a lot more defense,” he said.

On the Web:
Facebook., group: Detained In North Korea: Journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee, please help
Committee to Protect Journalists,
Freedom House,


Wake Up the Echoes

By Shawn Healy
President Obama's speech at Notre Dame this past Sunday was laden with controversy that centered primarily on the contentious issue of abortion. Protesters peppered the scene and early on even interrupted the speech, but his remarks went on regardless, and to the president's credit, he embraced rather than wiggled away from the subject of their scorn.

Abortion emerged as the acid test of the culture wars in the aftermath of the 1973, all-or-nothing, Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The Court has since revisited the issue, at times chipping away at abortion rights (parental notification, restrictions on late term abortions), but Roe has stood the test of time and is largely considered stare decisis, or settled law, by the legal community.

Abortion is sure to rise to the fore once more in the weeks to come as President Obama introduces his first Supreme Court nominee to replace the retiring Justice Souter. Ironically, many of the left feared Souter's appointment to the Court, predicting that he would provide the decisive fifth vote to overturn Roe. Little did they know that this "stealth" Justice would drift to the liberal bloc and stand as an adamant defender of the landmark decision.

Interesting enough, despite President Obama's decisive victory in the November election, American's are slowly moving away from his pro-choice position on abortion. According to an article on, parsing a new Gallup poll, "The percentage of Americans who identify as 'pro-life' jumped from 44 percent to 51 percent in the last year, according to the poll. Those who identify as 'pro-choice' fell from 50 percent to 42 percent over the same period."

Short of a sea change, these numbers provide testament to the fact that Americans continue to hold complicated, and sometimes conflicting views on abortion. But deep fissures remain, and Obama acknowledged them in his speech.

The president said "I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it--indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory--the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

If the differences are indeed "irreconcilable," how can we progress as a society and avoid South Bend-like standoffs? Obama's olive branch included working to make abortion more rare, to prevent unwanted pregnancies, to care for mothers who bring their babies to term, and to make adoption more accessible. He also held out conscience clauses for medical practitioners and enhanced health care ethics that respect women's rights.

These specific prescriptions aside, there is value in constructive dialogue over this issue and others. President Obama and Notre Dame refused to shirk controversy and a national conversation ensued. Let's hope a healthy debate continues.


Take a Bite Out of Corruption

By Shawn Healy
On Wednesday evening, the Freedom Museum, in partnership with the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Illinois Press Association, hosted a program on the political corruption that permeates the state. I moderated a panel that included Professor Dick Simpson of UIC, John Chase of the Chicago Tribune, Terry Pastika of the Citizen Advocacy Center, and Cynthia Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Simpson highlighted historic corruption in the state, county, and city, and introduced the second of two studies on the subject, this one titled "The Depth of Corruption in Illinois." Chase covered former Governor Rod Blagojevich for six years and recounted the series of events that lead to his impeachment and removal from office (read his political obituary for Blagojevich here), but also pointed to the fact that he is merely symptomatic of the corrupt politics that pervade the state.

Pastika referenced a March report that her organization compiled, titled the Midwest Open Government Project. It focuses specifically on the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts in select states, including Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Illinois ranks poorly on both counts, and Pastika recommends pursuit of the related measures embedded in the Illinois Reform Commission's 100 Day Report.

Canary testified before the so-called Quinn Commission on February 23 and stands as a leading voice in favor of comprehensive campaign finance reform in the state. Calling Illinois "the Wild West of political ethics and campaign finance practices," Canary is pushing for contribution limits, more transparency, and a transition toward public financing of campaigns.

Several of the 60 audience members in attendance asked how they could take part in the process of pushing for wholesale changes to the way the State of Illinois conducts business. Canary said we should call or write our state legislators (the ICPR has the tools on its web site) and pressure them to consider the various elements of the Quinn Commission Report. Given the dearth of citizen response, a dozen or so letters can spur action, according to Canary. Pastika and Chase both stressed the power of letters to the editor of local newspapers, and Simpson asked us to take one step further. Organize large groups of people, he suggests, and travel to Springfield to interact face-to-face with our elected officials.

The window of opportunity may be closing as the spring legislative session comes to a close at the end of May. There are indications that some of the recommended reforms are already being cast aside, and that reform-related legislation is being drafted and debated behind closed doors. Our panelists unanimously agreed that the time for citizens of the state to act is now.

Click here to read the Midwest Democracy Network's coverage of the program.


Flags of Our Father

By Shawn Healy
Last week, controversial Catholic Priest Michael Pfleger flew the American flag upside-down outside St. Sabina Parish to call attention to the fact that 36 Chicago Public School (CPS) students have died as a result of gun violence since September. On the heels of international panic about the swine flu, Pfleger begged for similar urgency for a more lethal, enduring problem that has plagued this city for far too long. However distasteful we might consider his actions, he dutifully exercised his constitutional rights to call attention to a city in “distress.”

His moves were met with passionate protest from those who considered Pfleger’s actions unpatriotic, even resulting in the flag’s illegal confiscation by concerned passers by. As posted at, he proceeded to replace it with another banner, promising to continue such civil disobedience until "people…acknowledge and do something about" persistent gun violence in his South Side community.

Section 176, Part A, of the U.S. Flag Code reads: “The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” First adopted in 1923, the code once carried the force of statute, but delegated punishment for potential violations to the states.

Illinois and every other state had their own flag codes and associated penalties for violating it, but these were struck down in the 1989 Texas v. Johnson decision. In criminalizing flag desecration, the 5-4 majority ruled that Texas infringed upon expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, the government’s interest in protecting the flag does not supersede an individual’s right to engage in political speech.

Congress responded with federal penalties in the Flag Protection Act, but this too fell on First Amendment grounds in the 1990 follow-up case U.S. v. Eichman. Successive attempts to pass a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration failed, falling a single vote shy of the required two-thirds majority in the Senate as late as 2006.

Pfleger may stand in technical violation of the flag code, yet he considers his community in its own state of “distress.” "Life is at risk and particularly our children," he said. "If it's a distress signal, we're feeling it in Chicago."

Past attempts to spur policymakers into action have fallen on deaf ears. For example, reports that Diane Latiker, founder of Kids Off the Block, built a memorial to school-age victims of gun violence in a vacant Chicago lot during 2007. She started with 30 landscaping stones inscribed with the fallen children’s names, hoping to shock the city into action. Two years later, 153 stones have gathered, and the epidemic only grows.

Pfleger recognized the symbolic significance of the flag and the fact that his actions had their intended effect. "There's more attention being given to the flag than to children dying," Pfleger said. "What do we care about children dying?"

Americans everywhere cherish this patriotic symbol of national unity. It speaks to our common heritage and our shared destiny. School children across Illinois pledge allegiance to it each morning, and adults proudly place our hands across our hearts and sing the national anthem while facing its fluttering glory prior to sporting events and other special occasions. We react with scorn when someone shows the slightest sign of disrespect to this cherished symbol.

Pfleger struck a nerve in a desperate measure to draw attention to pervasive violence in the president’s hometown. As the swine flu threat subsides, will we move beyond mere symbolism and tackle a more complicated and even more lethal epidemic? Disrespect for Old Glory aside, doesn’t Father Pfleger have a point?


No Longer Lonely

By Shawn Healy
Chicago's First Amendment community has lost some ardent champions over the course of the last calendar year. In October, the venerable writer and radio personality Studs Terkel signed off for the final time. Last month, the American Library Association Director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, Judith Krug, ascended to those stacks of banned books in heaven. This Wednesday, former Chicago Alderman Leon "Len" Despres died at the fine old age of 101, and is surely on course to continue to haunt the late Mayor Richard J. Daley once he passes through the pearly gates and speaks from a microphone that cannot be muted.

Despres' tenure on the Chicago City Council coincided with all but the final year of the first Daley's reign. His championing of civil rights, intolerance for corruption, and clever use of parliamentary procedure proved that all principled causes are not lost, even if one winds up on the short end of a 49-1 council vote rubber stamping "The Boss."

I came to know Len Despres briefly through my work on the Bughouse Square Debates committee. He was part of the original crowd that coalesced to revive what is now an annual celebration of Chicago's free speech tradition at Washington Square Park. Len attended one of our meetings last summer and proved as articulate and passionate as ever.

Where he was once a lone voice in the wilderness, he lived long enough to see many of his causes become decidedly mainstream. His life story, recounted powerfully in a 2005 biography he co-authored, Challenging the Daley Machine, proves the significance of speaking truth to power, even when faced with great odds. Despres record reflects the transformative nature of dissent powered by the First Amendment.


The Defining Moment

By Shawn Healy
In preparation for the Freedom Museum's Obama 100 Days program last Thursday, I paged through Jonathan Alter's 2006 tome, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. The parallels between FDR and President Obama are inevitable, and this book brought many to light. Analysis of Obama's first 100 days in office borders on overkill, so I will instead lean on history, and Alter's spectacular work, to take this pontificating in a new direction.

FDR and Obama are polar opposites in terms of upbringing, the former an East Coast aristocrat and the latter a self-made man from Hawaii among other places. However, both were raised by nurturing mothers and were ultimately schooled at Harvard. Each labored in his own state legislature, but FDR entered office with significantly more experience, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson years and two terms as Governor of New York. Obama's single truncated term in the U.S. Senate stands as his only foil.

Both men were tested during the course of their respective runs for the presidency on grounds of competence and experience. FDR was seen as an intellectual lightweight, while Obama was portrayed as a political neophyte. In the days the proceeded polling data, many expected Hoover to prevail over FDR, and though Obama held a consistent lead throughout his race against McCain, doubts about undercurrents of racism throughout the electorate called it into question.

Their comfortable margins of victory signified change during trying economic times. True, the current crisis pales in comparison to the Great Depression, but they share a banking collapse, deflation, and unemployment, not to mention severe damage to the national psyche. Obama ran on the mantle of restoring hope in America, and both men embodied this spirit through their unwavering optimism and willingness to engage in "bold, persistent experimentation." FDR was unquestionably successful on this count even though he was unable to reverse the nation's economic fortunes, and early returns suggest the same for Obama.

FDR's flurry of activity in the first 100 days of his presidency was a coincidence in the sense that they coincided exactly with Congress' session and adjournment. It is also important to note that his presidency did not begin until March, allowing him time to assemble his Cabinet and hit the ground running. Obama's January start provided no such luxury, as he was forced to fill out his staff while acting unilaterally on any number of fronts in his initial flurry. According to a site created by NPR to track Obama's first 100 days, he and his administration engaged in 146 separate actions, 39 economic in nature, 59 other domestic issues, and 48 in the realm of foreign policy.

While FDR refused to cooperate with Hoover as the Depression assumed its depths, and the lame duck president engaged in bitter stonewalling of his own, Obama and Bush were both conciliatory and cooperative, passing the presidential baton and managing the initial banking bailout and rescue of the auto industry. FDR did not want to share responsibility for policies that arguably pilloried the nation's economy, and Obama remains in a honeymoon period where our current problems are pinned to his predecessor. It will inevitably prove short lived, especially if his unprecedented increases in deficit spending fail to move the economic needle.

A president's first 100 days is more of a media milestone than a reliable means for us to assess his initial performance in office. The second 100 days is every bit as important, as it is during this period where significant policy changes often ensue. For example, it was during this period that Eisenhower secured an armistice in Korea, and Reagan realized his massive across-the-board income tax cuts. FDR's "Second New Deal" did not take place until 1935 when he signed the Social Security Act among other measures.

Obama is bent on delivering national health insurance, an item that FDR dismissed summarily when he created the aforementioned entitlement program. He is also eager to address climate change and education reform in his first year, and perhaps even immigration. His timetables may conflict with a Congress that is likely to recess for part of the period and begin ramping up for the midterm elections in 2010. Even though his Democratic Party has rock solid majorities on both houses of Congress, their complicity may wane in the wake of the spending splurge that has already occurred. However, I have learned through my observations of Obama's stratospheric rise that his political skills are sharp, his visions boundless, and his successes undeniable.


A World Without the Globe

By Shawn Healy
First the Rocky Mountain News stopped the presses and we took a collective breath and resolved that at least Denver was left with the larger Post.

Then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer scaled back to a spartan staff and an online-only operation. Yet the Seattle Times lived on to lead the crusade.

The Detroit Daily News and Free Press next suspended delivery to three days a week. No surprise given dire straits in the Motor City.

At the same time, newsrooms have increasingly resembled morgues, as reporters are sent to the unemployment lines with little prospect of sustainable employment. But readers (and freelance writers) are flocking to new media alternatives like the Huffington Post and Politico.

Now, the New York Times Company has apparently proven that its threat to shutter the venerable, yet bleeding Boston Globe was much more than idle. "New England's most storied newspaper" may be extinct within two months, leaving only the tabloid Boston Herald, with a slim staff of ten to stand as Beantown's print voice.

The Gray Lady herself is highly leveraged with loans taken on its Manhattan headquarters and from a Mexican billionaire, along with a newsroom staff paring of 100 and a 5% pay cut.

This bloodbath may be inevitable as a broken economic model coupled with the worst economy in three generations has hastened the collapse of print journalism as we know it. An alternative will undeniably rise from the ashes, but the utter brutality of the present and the unknown direction we are headed make the present ever difficult to swallow.

Here's hoping that economic stabilization equals the preservation of pivotal print outlets, at least for the time being. Before long, a new economic model must usher in the same investigative reporting central to democratic accountability and governance. Until then, let's hope the Times finds a way to spare its brethren in Boston.

The world simply wouldn't be the same without the Globe.


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