Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Speech, speech and more speech

By Kelli
I recently attended my first “un-conference,” the Conscience Un-Conference, co-sponsored by the United States Holocaust Museum and the George Mason University Center for History New Media. The un-conference focused on using social media as tools for doing good – ending genocide, combating hatred, increasing involvement in democracy, etc., and many interesting and varied organizations took part, both in person and virtually. As a newcomer to un-conferences, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. Because the sessions were more casual, and put together the morning of the un-conference, there weren’t long PowerPoint presentations and multiple handouts and laser pointers. Instead, there was discussion. Lots and lots of useful discussion.

One of the most interesting discussions at the conference (that happened in several sessions) was discussing user generated content, and the scary moment of putting your collections, your materials, your creations, online for all to see, use and comment on. Many of the participants deal with sensitive material, and that material has elicited some disturbing comments in the past, comments filled with hatred, racism, or just plain anger. Is it appropriate to put that content online, leaving those associated with the content vulnerable to attack? It’s a difficult question to answer, especially when the content in question may be photos of Holocaust survivors, but an important one, with many First Amendment implications.

In the course of our discussions about the topic, the old adage “The way to combat bad speech isn’t less speech, it’s more speech” was invoked, and seems very appropriate. Taking away resources and limiting the public’s access to valid and appropriate content because we’re afraid of hate speech only strengthens the power of hate speech overall. As one participant pointed out, showing the general public that hate speech still exists – and in some arenas, flourishes – goes farther in showing the need for institutions of tolerance than any prepared statement ever could. Institutions and organizations of conscience need to shine a light on intolerance and hatred in order to show the world how ugly and real it is, not limit how much we show due to fear and hope to keep things sanitized. Hate speech goes on with our without our posted content, and if we can use that speech for good, to make people more aware of the appalling nature of hate speech, and hopefully inspire them to do something to create more tolerance, we’ve beaten the hate-speechers at their own game. As a comment I made (that was tweeted by none other than Craig of Craigslist himself) succinctly puts it “Without freedom of speech, how will we know who the $#@!holes are?”

Of course, this is an easy thing to say in theory, but a very difficult thing to do when you have the feelings of real people, people who have survived a horrifying event and confronted more hatred than most of us could ever imagine, to take into account. That’s why another initiative the Freedom Project is taking on in 2010 is also very important – media literacy. If we can help people distinguish between valid voices and information, and those just hatemongering, we’ve taken away a critical tool of people who use intolerance to incite violence and more hatred. Knowing who to trust, and where to go if you’re not sure if you should trust someone, is as important in our media adventures as they were when we were going on our first dates, going to college, or renting an apartment for the first time. People need the tools to weed out the unreliable voices or to refute them. Combined with the power of free speech, media literacy will go far in using hate speech for exactly the purposes it was not intended for – education, inclusion and tolerance.

To find out more about the Conscience Un-Conference, visit the official blog at, or search for #conconf on Twitter to see live tweets during the sessions.


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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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