FIRE fans will remember that Laura Fitzpatrick of Groton Dunstable Regional High School was the winner of the 2008 Freedom in Academia essay contest. For the contest, students were asked to watch two FIRE videos, FIRE on Campus: An Introduction to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and FIRE in Action: Valdosta State University, and discuss how universities portrayed in the films have betrayed the purpose of a university and violated the constitutional rights of their students. FIRE received 1,500 submissions from high school students across the country. While many of the essays were very incisive, Laura took the cake with her winning essay, "Kindle the Flame–The Fight to Protect Freedom of Expression." Laura wrote:
It is a testament to the power of freedom of speech and thought that these universities feel that it is necessary to restrict it 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.
The university should be a place where students feel absolutely safe in exercising their First Amendment rights, but many universities, fearing negative attention for student expression, curtail these rights. Groups like FIRE work on behalf of students by shifting the balance of power between universities and their students through measures to educate people about their rights and to bring violations of these rights to national attention if the institution refuses to rectify them. Through diligent effort by organizations and students, all universities can become the type of environments where diverse ideas flourish and where higher education can truly prepare students to be open, involved citizens.
FIRE awarded Laura a $5,000 scholarship to the college or university of her choice. She graduated from high school this spring and is preparing to start classes at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, where she plans to major in neuroscience and pursue a career as a research scientist. We congratulate Laura again on her excellent essay and wish her the best in her studies.
High school seniors graduating in 2010 interested in participating in this year’s "Freedom in Academia" essay contest should check out the scholarship page here. All essays are due by November 6, 2009.