Freedom vs. ‘The Simpsons’

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Organizers of the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum know they’ve got their work cut out for them. It was their own survey, after all, that famously found earlier this year that just 28% of Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment ? but 52% can name at least two members of The Simpsons cartoon family.

But the museum, which opens April 11 in the Tribune Co.’s cathedral-like Tribune Tower in Chicago, has set an even steeper challenge: It’s teenagers whom it seeks to educate about freedom, especially the First Amendment. “As we all know, it’s tough to get kids interested in a topic when it feels too academic and doesn’t feel relevant to their lives, so we relate to them using technology they are familiar with and comfortable using,” says Dave Anderson, the facility’s executive director.

Indeed, if the museum does not exactly have the feel of an arcade, it certainly reminiscent of a well-stocked game room. This is a highly interactive learning environment, lined with computers, plasma screens, and listening stations. Visitors can review critical Supreme Court decisions on issues, and then record how they would have voted. But history is mixed with themes of how the First Amendment touches on everyday life, expressing beliefs in how people dress, for instance, or what they can fearlessly say in school.

This first-ever U.S. museum about freedom commemorates the 50th anniversary of the McCormick Tribune Foundation. But according to Anderson, there’s more to its timing. “The board had been contemplating this for eight or maybe 10 years, and the time seemed right now,” he says, with the Iraq war and growing controversies over flag-burning, confidential sourcing, and other volatile issues.

As with everything the foundation does, the museum reflects the spirit of the legendary Chicago Tribune Publisher Col. Robert McCormick. As McCormick held a competition among architects to build the Tribune Tower, so the museum invited artists to suggest a centerpiece artwork. The winning sculpture, titled 12151791 after the ratification date of the Bill of Rights, soars two stories and features 900 hanging silver plates inscribed with quotes about freedom.

“Colonel McCormick was a big supporter of the First Amendment,” Anderson says, noting that McCormick was involved in the landmark Near v. Minnesota press freedom decision. And McCormick surely would want to do something in an America where, according to the museum’s survey, 22% of its citizens can name all five Simpsons, but just 0.1% can name the five First Amendment freedoms (which, incidentally, are speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances).

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