FIRE Announces Winners of ‘Freedom in Academia’ High School Essay Contest

December 19, 2008

Today FIRE named seniors Laura Fitzpatrick of Groton Dunstable Regional High School (Groton, Mass.) and Matthew Hancock of Serena High School (Serena, Ill.) the winners of FIRE’s first “Freedom in Academia” essay contest. Laura will receive a $5,000 scholarship for first place and Matthew will receive a $2,500 scholarship for second place. Steven Zavala of Three Rivers High School (Three Rivers, Mich.) was awarded an honorable mention and will receive a $500 scholarship.

FIRE announced its “Freedom in Academia” essay contest in September and sent notifications about the contest to nearly 10,000 high schools across the country. Students were instructed to watch two short videos about FIRE’s work: FIRE on Campus: An Introduction to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and FIRE in Action: Valdosta State University. They were then to write an essay discussing the videos and explaining how these universities betrayed the purpose of a university and violated constitutional guarantees of free expression.

FIRE’s staff received and read approximately 1,500 essay submissions and determined that Laura and Matthew had the best entries. The quality and depth of the final essays made choosing the best a difficult decision, so FIRE decided to award an honorable mention to Steven Zavala for his outstanding essay.

In her winning essay “Kindle the FlameThe Fight to Protect Freedom of Expression,” Fitzpatrick wrote,

The university system cannot and should not act as the play date chaperone who hovers over its students to protect them from hurt feelings; hurt feelings to some degree are part of discourse and the process of becoming an adult.”

It is a testament to the power of freedom of speech and thought that these universities feel that it is necessary to restrict [free speech] in this manner, although in doing so they are essentially defeating the greatest benefit of the university system, that is, the unlimited pool of ideas and opinions upon which any student may draw.

In his essay “Freedom of Speech: ‘Knowledge in the Making’,” Hancock wrote,

A college campus, of all places, should be the first to protect and promote the freedom of expression essential to a democracy, but not all do; some limit expression and expel students for engaging in political and social protests. These institutions replace freedom of discourse with censorship.

Today’s students will be tomorrow’s leaders, and if colleges teach them to blindly obey and follow what is “accepted,” that will be tomorrow’s leadership. America wasn’t founded on blindly following the majority; it was founded on expressing individual beliefs and speaking out against injustice. Colleges need to foster these rights and uphold democracy.

In his essay earning honorable mention, “Learning to Think Through Free Speech,” Zavala wrote,

…[P]rotecting students from being confronted with ideas and beliefs that they find offensive is preventing them from receiving the deeper character building education that is a university’s unparalleled offering.

An environment under an authority like this makes the pursuit of knowledge an absurd task, since it is impossible to know just how much information has been collected by isolated individuals on campus that has not been communicated to others because of the fear of censorship due to perceived offensiveness.

Congratulations to our winners. We at FIRE are extremely pleased that such bright, civic-minded students are headed for college, and we look forward to working with them throughout their collegiate career on behalf of freedom of speech.

FIRE’s “Freedom in Academia” essay contest, which we hope to hold annually, is open to college-bound high school seniors.