Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


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?


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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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