FIRE Announces Winners of 2010 ‘Freedom in Academia’ Essay Contest

By on December 17, 2010

Today, FIRE is pleased to announce the winners of the Third Annual "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest.

Kristen Lemaster, a senior at Shiloh High School in Shiloh, Georgia, received first prize and a $5,000 college scholarship for her essay "Freedoms and Education." Mollyanne Gibson, a homeschool student from Topeka, Kansas, wrote the second prize essay, "Freedom of Expression in Higher Education." She will receive a $2,500 college scholarship.

Five runners up were also selected, and each will receive receive a $1,000 scholarship: Abigail Averill, Zach Beims, Miriam Creach, Adam Spangler, and Jackson Wilson.

FIRE’s "Freedom in Academia" Essay Contest invited high school seniors to watch two short documentaries about key FIRE cases, "Think What We Think…Or Else: Thought Control on the American Campus" and "Political Correctness vs. Freedom of Thought – The Keith John Sampson Story," and submit an essay explaining why free speech is important on campus and how the schools depicted in the videos violated the spirit of free inquiry that should define the university.

Kristen’s winning essay (printed in full below) argues that the role of education is for students to connect with their individuality as they explore the world, and that universities should provide an open environment where students can develop independent thought.

The essay contest is an important part of FIRE’s "Know Before You Go" initiative, which educates high school students about the harms of college censorship before they get to campus. Since we began holding the contest in 2008, nearly 6,000 high school students have submitted essays expressing their views on the state of free expression in higher education and their hopes that their own college experience will be free from censorship.

FIRE would like to thank all of the participants in this year’s essay contest, and wish sincere congratulations to Kristen, Mollyanne, Abigail, Zach, Miriam, Adam, and Jackson! To read all of the winning essays, visit our contest page.

Freedoms and Education
By Kristen Lemaster

When Keith John Sampson turned the pages of the book he was reading for leisure during an Indiana University work break, he was not looking to incite any reaction from his coworkers. He was not attempting to offend anyone as he dove into the story of Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan; rather, he hoped to gain a better understanding of the people involved and educate himself about a major episode in America’s history. What better place to do that than an American university?

When freshman students at the University of Delaware nervously shuffled their feet in their first orientation as college students, they were not looking to be cured of their alleged racist and oppressive tendencies. They were not asking to be intimidated, inflamed, indoctrinated; they wanted an outlet for their questions to be met with open discussion and the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about America’s social and political conflicts. What better place to do that than an American university?

One of the most curious phrases concerning education comes from a brilliant physicist and astronomer by the name of Galileo Galilei: "you cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself." If nothing can be taught, then what is the purpose of the American university system? What is the purpose of education? Some would say it is imperative that children be taught right from wrong, but perhaps society is the true teacher of such morals. Some would say education is simply to prepare the youth for the "real world," their careers and responsibilities after school, but learning is not confined to the classroom. Galileo was not undermining education; he was offering a more profound and significant reason for its existence. Education is a means of self-exploration and expression, the very concepts on which our nation was founded and the reasons why an American university education is so highly coveted in other nations across the globe.

America has always been a nation that values the individual and celebrates individual liberties by operating on the basis of freedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion, collectively known as the freedom of expression. However, as both of the FIRE videos showed, these rights are far from being fully exercised and protected. In the case of the University of Delaware’s attempted "thought reform," students were even deprived of their freedom to believe anything they like, and were instead asked to conform to the Office of Residence Life’s ideals, much like people were asked to believe anything Big Brother dictated in George Orwell’s nightmarish novel 1984. How much of the universe would still be left unknown if Galileo had been coerced into conforming to the kind of thinking that was common in his time, namely the belief in the (very inaccurate) geocentric model of the universe? It would have felt wrong for him to believe in anything besides what he genuinely and individually thought to be true. Similarly, it was wrong for the university to mandate that its students attend sessions ("treatment") in which racism was hypocritically emphasized; the university blatantly betrayed the heart of education by attempting to convert all students to the same mind frame, rather than encouraging independent thought.

Independent thought can be developed in a variety of ways, but it is most thoroughly developed and explored when one takes advantage of all that is within his reach–including campus libraries. Keith John Sampson’s story at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, like that of the University of Delaware freshmen, highlights the hypocrisy of a particular university, which found Keith John Sampson guilty of racial harassment for merely reading a book that he could have checked out from the university’s own library. The Affirmative Action Office "literally judged the book by its cover," as the video eloquently stated, and convicted Sampson without abiding by due process and conducting a hearing, thereby violating a number of the freedoms enumerated in the Constitution. Freedom of expression includes not only the outflow of information–printing newspapers and delivering speeches–but also the intake of such information, including reading books and absorbing the written history and culture of America. What use would Galileo’s The Starry Messenger be if people had not been allowed to read it and allowed it instead to sit idly on shelves, withholding some of the most fascinating details of the world?

Education and freedom are interdependent in every aspect, from the individual to whole universities. One without the other is a hollowed carving, an exploded star, lacking substance or the means to channel it. Galileo learned so much about the world not necessarily because he was taught it, but because he had the freedom to truly explore it and discover it for himself. Freedom in academia must be maintained in America’s higher institutions in order to foster this kind of social and educational growth. What better place to do that than an American university?