Don’t Miss These Highlights from FIRE’s Winning Essay Contest Entries

February 24, 2014

At the end of January, FIRE announced the winners of our 2013–2014 Freedom in Academia Essay Contest. High school juniors and seniors were invited to write an essay answering the question, “Why is free speech important at our nation’s colleges and universities?” More students than ever before—3,300—submitted essays. Enjoy the following excerpts from this year’s winning essays, and allow these young students’ voices to inspire you.

If you are a high school student and interested in entering next year’s essay contest, visit the contest page!

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By Kanitta Kulprathipanja
This essay won first place in FIRE’s 2013–2014 Essay Contest.

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Without the freedom of speech, this is what would remain of my essay if someone in a position of power disagreed with my argument. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution, and those who defend it, it looks like this instead:

Imagine a country in which a student can get penalized for reading a book, one in which legal adults are banned from asking each other on dates, and peacefully disagreeing with an authority figure could result in suspension. Many Americans would immediately form an image of an oppressive dictatorship. Their minds may run through a list of countries with the worst freedom of speech. But these harsh injustices did not occur in North Korea, Turkmenistan, or Eritrea. They occurred in Francis Scott Key’s “land of the free,” the United States of America. At a time in their lives when students most desperately need to explore and expand their minds, a lack of freedom hinders their ability to grow as both students and citizens of the U.S.A.


Free speech on college campuses is not only a must, it is a right. College brings huge changes in the life of a student. Students learn a lot during the years they spend there: about the past, about the world, and about themselves. Preventing free speech stunts their ability to gain this knowledge. It punishes those who seek to improve the world; it encourages a lack of critical thinking. College students need to explore and learn to become better citizens for the future. In order for the United States to continue to grow, we must continue to fight for our freedoms, including free speech on college campuses. Read the full essay here.

The Necessity of Debate

By Isabella Penola
This essay won second place in FIRE’s 2013–2014 Essay Contest.

Imagine yourself as a young adult, a hard-earned college acceptance letter in hand, your heart full of excitement and fervent expectation. Impatient to dive into the next four-or-so years of learning and educational exchange of ideas, you set off to your chosen university. Yet when you arrive, you are dismayed to discover that, through the institution of confining “free speech zones,” your school restricts the healthy debate and intellectual exchange of ideas for which you so eagerly yearned. You learn that your university allows free speech, but only in a very limited area of the campus.

This may sound like a fabrication dreamed up by an Orwell-reading conspiracy theorist, but unfortunately it is a scenario in which many modern-day American college students find themselves. The University of Cincinnati is just one of dozens of colleges across the nation with restricted free speech zones, and countless other examples can be found of universities hindering students’ freedom of speech. It is becoming increasingly important for both students and American citizens to recognize these abridgments, understand the harm they cause, and take steps to eradicate them.


If our Founders decided-and we have upheld the belief—that the antagonistic trade of ideas is good enough for our governmental system, if it is commonly understood that scientific advancements are best made when ideas are exchanged between, tested by, and then built upon by multiple parties, then why would we allow the destruction of that principle in the institutions that are raising and educating our nation’s future political, scientific, and social leaders? In the end, the unfettered exchange of ideas—especially opposing ones—is the quintessentially American trait, the essence of education, the ideal of progress, the very reason why our nation has been so successful and why so many students dream of attending college in the first place. When a university’s leaders deny students the freedom to speak their minds, they are hindering the cause for which their institution was created and are directly harming our nation’s future. Read the full essay here.

Free Speech: The Cornerstone of Civic Empowerment

By Justin Hunsaker
This essay won third place in FIRE’s 2013–2014 Essay Contest.

The most potent weapon against an established injustice, whether that is the infringements of a tyrannical king or the improper investment of university funds, has always been the communication of ideas. By taking punitive action against students who raise criticism, and through measures such as segregating open speech to tiny “free speech zones,” universities not only align themselves with the tyrants who would choke out free speech in the name of executive expediency, but also steal from the student body a vital power for self-correction and intellectual advancement.

This disempowerment, expressed through individual infringements like the one against Hayden Barnes, or through the implementation of restrictive policies such as the so-called “speech codes” many universities embrace today, extends broadly-as such measures not only decay the overall intellectual vitality of the institution but also enable the slow degradation of the individual rights upon which our country was founded. In the 1952 case Wieman v. Updegraff, the United States Supreme Court referred to such a phenomenon as the “chilling effect”-when one man is pressed by legal sanctions for exercising his free speech, his peers take note, and are more wary of exercising their own rights in the future. This trend becomes cyclical, with each enfeeblement of the individual citizen further enabling authoritative restriction, until a once proud tradition of open speech is gradually lost. Again, the consequences of such a decline are twofold-not only is the individual deprived of his liberty and dignity as a citizen under the constitution, but the institution’s intellectual capital is diminished, and its potential for enlightened progress lessened. Read the full essay here.


By James D.E. Ellwanger
This essay won third place in FIRE’s 2013–2014 Essay Contest.

Back in 1965, five students from my public school district in Des Moines, Iowa, wore black armbands to class in order to protest the war in Vietnam. After they were suspended, a lawsuit was filed resulting in a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court handed down in 1969 which defines the constitutional free speech rights of students in U. S. public schools: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In deciding that the students’ symbolic speech was constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, the majority opinion famously proclaimed, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The court held that in order to justify censorship of student speech, schools must be able to show more than a “mere desire to avoid discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint” and instead show that the challenged conduct would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”

The so-called “Tinker Test” is still used by the courts today when addressing free speech issues. However, its strong protection against censorship of student speech is arguably in danger.


Siblings John and Mary Beth Tinker recently visited my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa in order to mark the 44th anniversary of their famous U.S. Supreme Court case. Recently, they have toured the country making appearances to promote free speech and the fundamental rights of students that demand government respect. It is a remarkable lesson in civics and one that has stood the test of time. It is an important reminder that we need to be able to explore ideas without fear of punishment, especially on college and university campuses. We must promote an open society where debate and discussion is encouraged, not stifled. Only then, as students and as citizens, will we truly be free. Read the full essay here.

College and University Censorship of Student Speech Undermines America’s Future

By Emily Cox
This essay won third place in FIRE’s 2013–2014 Essay Contest.

The ability to think critically and analyze issues is paramount to achieving success in the modern world. The United States needs leaders who make decisions on their own and have the confidence to act on them. When colleges censor free speech on their campuses-hubs in which students prepare to enter the workforce and tackle real issues-they create a generation of “yes men.” The values of the past promulgated by college leaders are not always the most moral or effective, so they should not always be unquestionably accepted. However, when universities prohibit students from thinking for themselves, they make sure that this will normally be the case.

Sometimes, though, a brave student will speak up for what they believe is right based on their own examinations and conclusions. Such was the case with Hayden Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University, who protested the university’s construction of a parking lot paid for with $40 million in student fees. Barnes created fliers, wrote emails, and even published a letter in the student paper expressing his opposition to the costly project and suggesting more constructive ways in which the $40 million could be spent. The college met his reasonable actions, the type of behaviors which should be encouraged on college campuses, with hostility by threatening to remove him from the university. Embarrassed that Barnes challenged the value of his pet project, the president of Valdosta told Barnes that he could never forgive him for the personal embarrassment his protest caused the president. This petty reasoning does not justify the university’s overreach in trying to remove Barnes from the school. Barnes simply employed his right to freedom of speech to call attention to an action that he believed hurt the student population and merited discussion. Criticism like this should be recognized as beneficial to both colleges and student development instead of being censored. Read the full essay here.