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FIRE’s 2020-2021 Free Speech Essay Contest: More winning essays
FIRE’s High School Outreach team recently published the winners of the 2020–2021 Free Speech Essay Contest — along with the winning submission.
This year’s prompt asked students to draw on current events, historical examples, personal experiences, or other FIRE resources to pen “a persuasive letter or essay [to] convince your peers that free speech is a better idea than censorship.”
Below, we’re printing the essays from our second and third place winners.
And if you’re a high school student or teacher, find age-level resources on free expression, civil liberties lesson plans, and more — at thefire.org/high-school.
Second Place Entry
Sami Al-Asady — Ironwood High School
Free Speech: The Foundation of a Vibrant Democracy
In 1995, after my grandfather and uncle had been brutally killed for voicing criticism of dictator Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime, my father fled Iraq and immigrated to the United States, where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution. My mother, also a refugee, narrowly escaped genocide in the Bosnian War, where ethnic minorities were slaughtered and devoid of their religious freedoms. As a first-generation American, I hold dear the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Intellectuals have long revered the principle of free speech. For instance, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, a century and a half ago, declared, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” Mill argued that minority opinions must be shielded from the mob that would readily suppress them. Silencing lone opinions not only encroaches on individual rights, but it also threatens the bedrock values of truth, autonomy, and self-governance that are so critical to a modern, pluralistic democracy. The idea is profoundly optimistic: good ideas win.
To protect the cherished First Amendment, however, difficult decisions have to be made. In the landmark 2011 Snyder v. Phelps case, in an 8-to-1 vote, the court ruled that government could not stop members of the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting military funerals across the country because of what they perceived to be the government’s tolerance of homosexuality—signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” were ubiquitous. Although the decision was difficult, the majority decided to protect free speech, however painful it may be, because the mere possibility of government censorship impinges on the very promise America was founded on—that of a constitutionally free nation. Government censorship nurtures anti-democratic values that transgress the idea of liberty.
Sadly, free speech is under attack on college campuses. Rather than foster safe environments for political discourse, the key to an active and informed citizenry, university administrators have elected to censor speech. For instance, universities are actively encroaching on the principle of free speech by relegating students to minuscule “free speech zones.” At Valdosta State University, free speech activities of 11,000 students were limited to just 1% of the 168-acre campus. This atrocious policy was a testament to the false promise that college is a protected place for discourse. However, it is not just school administrators that are attacking free speech, but it is also students themselves. At Grand Canyon University (GCU), students blocked conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro from speaking. This action clearly contravenes the school’s mission of preparing students to become global citizens, critical thinkers, and proactive communicators. By blocking dissenting views, college students effectively prevent themselves from attaining a profound liberal arts education. Blocking speakers that hold different political views not only prevents students from engaging in personally transformative discourse, but also from understanding why political opposites believe their ideas with conviction. Until the principle of free speech is vigorously fostered on college campuses, students will not acquire the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in a complex, globalized world.
Furthermore, absurdly vague speech codes at universities are potent threats to a vibrant democracy. For instance, the University of Michigan enacted a code that forbade “[any] behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or creed.” Although the commitment to protect students from harm is applaudable, speech codes such as this impinge on the free communication that is so vital to our democracy. By cherry-picking which speech is protected and which isn’t, authoritarianism and government censorship can run rampant, preventing significant dialogue from occurring. Moreover, the vagueness of the policy’s language is a testament to the inadequacy of speech codes as a disciplinary measure. Thankfully, federal and state courts have decreed the measure unconstitutional. In the opinion of Doe v. University of Michigan, the court observed, “[t]he Supreme Court has consistently held that statutes punishing speech or conduct solely on the grounds that they are unseemly or offensive are unconstitutionally overbroad.” While hate speech, sexual harassment, racism, and heterosexism are important issues that ought to be addressed, restricting speech is not the solution.
Americans must remember the words of Mark Twain, who, a century ago, cautioned, “[whenever] you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” As social media corporations promulgate Orwellian-like groupthink, his words ring truer and truer with each passing day. Protecting the First Amendment allows revolutionary ideas to burgeon. Additionally, it allows citizens to challenge conventional wisdom and the status quo; novel ideas often give birth to remarkable outcomes. For instance, just take a look at the Great American Experiment. Appalled by the tyranny of the British monarchy, the Founding Fathers envisioned a nation in which unalienable rights—including free speech—are to be protected by the Constitution. They debated vigorously and held starkly different political philosophies; however, they refused to shy away from ideas that discomforted them.
As I think back to my parents’ journey to America, I realize the First Amendment is under attack precisely because of its power. It has the power to start a revolution, a new country, a new social order, a democracy. My generation must protect the cherished principle of free speech on college campuses and teach our peers the virtues of open dialogue and political discourse, for the consequences of government censorship are too great.
Third Place Entry
Salome Augusto – Stone Bridge High School
In the winter of 1954, an economist and scholar, a Dr. Paul M. Sweezy, found himself before the New Hampshire Attorney General. Sweezy was at the center of an investigation.
“What was the subject of your lecture?”
During his interrogation, Sweezy refused to answer any questions pertaining to a lecture he’d held at the University of New Hampshire the year prior. It had discussed quite an unsavory subject at the time, socialism.
“Did you advocate Marxism at that time?”
McCarthyism, the political backing behind this investigation, was a campaign rooted in the desire to preserve American freedoms against a potentially tyrannical ideology. Yet it suppressed the freedom of speech, labelling those with alternative opinions as “subversive”. In fact, Sweezy was being investigated under New Hampshire’s Subversive Activities Act. Doomed if he answered and doomed if he didn’t, Sweezy was found in contempt of court for his decision to remain silent.
Freedom of speech has remained a complex topic throughout American history. Dr. Sweezy wasn’t the first and won’t be the last controversial speaker to show up on an American campus. His ideas weren’t the first and won’t be the last unpopular ideas to be debated in a public setting. This is a constant. What has seen fluctuations is support for greater restrictions on speech. Restrictions on the First Amendment often come about for what could certainly be considered noble reasons, but under closer inspection, we can see that none are truly justified. As the upcoming generation, the next influence on public policy and social climate, it’s vital that we see the importance in free and open discussions always.
Over the past few decades, there’s been a slow increase in limitations on free speech, particularly on our college campuses. Speech codes, speaker bans, and small “free speech zones” are becoming more widely accepted. Although colleges house relatively small portions of the population, it’s important to pay attention to the individual climates we create within them. Colleges reflect the social and political future of our country.
The reasons for their constraints on the First Amendment are often good in theory. Speech codes are instituted to curtail hate speech or the spread of dangerous ideas. Speaker bans and free speech zones are set up to promote civility. However, in practice, they set a precarious precedent. Both hate speech and dangerous ideas are subjective. Outright threats, open calls for violence against others, and clear discriminatory harassment are identifiable and legally restrictable, but, beyond that, the territory is a gray area. At one point in our Nation’s history, racial mixing was considered a dangerous idea. Advocacy for my very existence as a multiracial person would’ve been seen as a threat to racial purity. Depending on the context, really any idea could be considered “dangerous” or “hateful.” If we set the precedent of subjectively restricting some speech, any speech can be restricted. As for civility, suppressing speech would most likely lead to the opposite. When we feel that we’ve been wronged, when we feel we’ve been silenced, do we not become more passionate, even reckless? Instead, we should strive to promote free and open discussion.
Free speech is more than just a better alternative to censorship. It’s productive, facilitating change. This generation is already striving to leave our mark on America, as every generation has before us, but we cannot do so without free speech. Free speech allowed suffragists like Jane Addams to advocate for the contentious idea of women’s enfranchisement in the early 20th century. Free speech also allowed anti-suffragists like Josephine Dodge to criticize the movement. That’s how permanent change is driven, through unrestricted debate. If one side had been censored, the focus would’ve likely shifted to that fact, rather than the issue at hand and the merits of each argument. Progress would’ve been stifled.
It’s also important to note the impact of the First Amendment’s equal application on any side of an issue. The restriction of an argument based on the level of its controversiality is directly counterproductive. The idea of female voters was once labeled radical and highly criticized. Therefore, it can be difficult to predict which current, “radical” ideas will become mainstream in a few decades. Each should, accordingly, be equally unrestrained. It’s crucial that we all are allowed to put forth ideas and disagree vocally. This is how we advance together.
As for Sweezy, he appealed his case to the Supreme Court. The resulting decision of Sweezy v. New Hampshire affirmed the importance of academic freedom of speech. Despite this (and other) legal precedents, cases remarkably similar continue to arise. Just last month, nearly 60 years later, an administrative investigation was opened into Professor Mark Miller at New York University for a propaganda lecture he gave on mask-wearing campaigns.
“What was the subject of your lecture?”
Students who disagreed with his presentation, rather than opening a discussion to criticize it, instead went to the school administration in order to have him de-platformed. After reviewing the professor’s argument, I also disagree with his lecture. Yet, it’s critical that his right to free speech be upheld, and that the precedent of silence not be set.
Policy, whether it be federal, local, or university policy, is influenced by those it affects—us. As the next generation, we have the power to effect change within these climates. Let us learn from our Nation’s history and strive to create a future of open discussion.
Third Place Entry
Jenna Smith – Kent Place School
Scotch Plains, N.J.
The Realm of True Progress
The year was 1787. It was a sunny afternoon in Philadelphia. After five months of grueling debates, the framers had finally reached the end of the Constitutional Convention, where they labored tirelessly to craft the great document that we know today. As they emerged from that sweltering room, they were greeted by throngs of engaged Americans waiting to hear what the fate of their country would be. As Benjamin Franklin, one of the eldest participants in the debates, was leaving the building, a woman eagerly approached him and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin looked the woman in the eyes and responded, without a moment’s hesitation, “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
If we are to “keep” our republic, as Franklin foretold, then we must actively engage in varied discourse with diverse perspectives. Free speech cannot be separated from the central goal of a republic. A republic is defined by the consent of the governed. However, consent given with limited perspectives, discourse, and information is not true consent. Yet, that is what we would be resigned to without freedom of expression. Free thought enables us to fully debate ideas in order to determine which are the best ones to represent our society. In a country that prides itself on its liberties, freedom of speech should not be treated as a luxury that can be ignored by America’s institutions of higher education or confined to limited “free speech zones.”
In addition to the immorality of censorship, it is necessary to evaluate its practical criticisms. The central goal of censorship is to eliminate “unwanted” ideas from society. However, an idea cannot simply be erased like the markings on a chalkboard. Ideas ruminate and expand in the minds of all those who come in contact with them, regardless of legislation designed to suppress those thoughts. In fact, the suppression of ideas often leads to an increased public fascination with them. This precisely occurred in the case of anti-vice activist, Anthony Comstock, who staunchly opposed the production and distribution of content relating to sex, abortion, and similar subjects percieved to be obscene. In the midst of his 19th century crusade against said materials, he was successful in prompting the passage of the Comstock Act, which banned all literature deemed “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy” under the Grant administration. His efforts went so far as to permit the search of private mail for obscene content without a warrant. Despite these extreme measures and violations of civil liberties, Comstock was ultimately unsuccessful in eradicating the contested materials from society (19 U.S. Code § 1461), and much of the material he opposed is consumed without restriction today. This instance leads us to the simple truth that censorship does not work, and society is likely better off because of it.
Some contest unabridged free speech by claiming that the act of barring offensive rhetoric will enable our society to progress past hateful ideologies, such as racism and sexism. However, this logic prioritizes the hatred vocalized over the hatred harbored. Hearts and minds are not changed by the suppression of ideas. Rather, they change through productive conversation and active engagement with varied perspectives.
When discussing the issue of censorship, one must evaluate the concept in relation to those who do not align with the modern mainstream perspective on issues relating racism, sexism, and other marginalizations. Censorship unequivocally favors the viewpoints of those in power, which is not always—what is widely considered—the morally correct viewpoint. It is vital to note that the pendulum of popular thought will never cease to swing, as what is viewed as moral in 2020 may differ from what is perceived as moral in 2040. The preamble of the Constitution proclaims that the nation should consistently work towards “a more perfect union.” These aforementioned shifts in American consciousness allow the people to develop a deeper understanding of what the core values of the country should be and how they will be embodied in pursuit of this more perfect union. It is unproductive to hinder the movement of ideas by repressing the full scope of public discourse.
If we venture to transport ourselves back to that summer afternoon in Philadelphia, where Ben Franklin forecasted our nation’s great challenge, we must ask ourselves: are we working to keep the republic? The answer: only if we continue to engage in public debate, continually pushing ourselves towards a more perfect union. A republic cannot function without open conversation. While it may be tempting to lean into the warm embrace of those who agree with our own ideologies, as modern censorship promises, true progress lives in discomfort. Similarly, we cannot claim to champion free speech only when that speech aligns with our beliefs. The true measure of our principles is not found when fighting for those we agree with, but rather for those that we passionately disagree with. We must remember that democracy is not automatic. The free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of a democratic society.
Third Place Entry
Margaret Ludwig – Mat-Su Career and Technical High School
When did we become so afraid of one another? When did ostracizing, demeaning, and threatening those who hold different opinions become popular? When did news sources become so biased, reporting in a way that supports a singular narrative and ignores all others? It is difficult to remain hopeful as an American during these times of censorship. I am weary of watching others being degraded by total strangers. I am weary of the fear that explaining my perspective reasonably could destroy my educational and career prospects. I hope that you, too, are weary, and that you will stand with me in changing our culture in a way that will benefit us all.
Benjamin Franklin asserted that freedom of speech was a “principal pillar of free government,” and that without it, tyranny would be erected on the ruins of free society. The First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights prevent the federal government from abridging the freedom of speech of its citizens, in addition to protecting freedoms of religion, of the press, and of peaceful protest. However, Americans manage to censor each other without the federal government doing so. In American culture, the “majority” consists of those whose opinions mirror those of mainstream media. While “tyranny of the majority” looks very different than it did in the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville described it in Democracy in America, it still adheres to the same general principles. Upon visiting Jacksonian America, Tocqueville’s greatest concern was that public opinion of the majority would overshadow and oppress the minority. While Tocqueville never saw modern America, I can imagine that he would be horrified by the future of censorship it is headed towards. Fear of free speech extends to minorities not only in the spheres of social media and politics, but to those who are less powerful in any sort of conflict. Though such dynamics have always existed in America, as supported by Franklin and Tocqueville, it is more important than ever that opportunities for free speech are acted upon.
Currently, I feel threatened by the prospect of speaking freely. My school district is attempting to change the application process for my high school, without significant public input and without the support of the vast majority of the student body. The new application has not been widely advertised, and many people are unaware of it. I am one of the principal organizers of a student coalition that aims to raise awareness about and prevent the new application.
Our student group has had little assistance from school staff; we surmise that they are afraid to speak out against the new system. Writing op-eds to a local newspaper in the hopes of spreading the word is our last resort. Given small-town politics, such an idea feels very risky. We even considered using pseudonyms to avoid repercussions from the district. As I consider the predicament of my organization and of our nation, I fear that such interactions will become the norm in my life, and in the lives of others. My experience is only a small example; fear over speech with much greater consequences stifles the voices of millions of Americans every day.
One of the most significant threats to freedom of speech is cancel culture. If someone speaks in favor of an opinion that is not favored by the majority, especially online, they risk being censored and losing their livelihoods. Proponents of cancel culture claim that the cancelled deserve the repercussions of their speech; surely those with such offensive ideas deserve suffering. The cancelled are supposedly cruel and ignorant as a result of their ideas, while the cancelers are supposedly “woke” and enlightened. Cancel culture flourishes upon the idea that its participants administer justice. This ideology has resulted in book burnings and the success of oppressive governments across the world. When a society figuratively criminalizes free thought, such thought may later be literally criminalized. Already, people of certain American political affiliations are being blacklisted so that they can later be “reprogrammed” and “held accountable.” Fellow Americans, do we want to live in a world in which any idea that is not accepted by the media invites punishment? Do we want to repeat the lessons taught to us by authoritarian regimes throughout history, or by “Fahrenheit 451” and “1984”?
It is our duty to speak freely. If we react to censorship with silence, we become complicit in our silencing. If those of us who do not agree with mainstream media, the government, or our friends and family decide that speaking out is not worth the risk, we lose incredible opportunities for discussion. Pretending to agree with ideals that conflict with one’s values makes it impossible for these values to survive, and for differing worldviews to reach understanding and compromise. Therefore, I will continue to speak against the new application. Contemplation of the censorship Americans face has revealed to me that my situation is practice. Given the direction our culture is headed, I may someday stand for something that places me in the way of serious harm. If we do not exercise free speech in the seemingly minor conflicts we face, censorship will prevail easily in the future.
Fellow Americans, please stand with me. Your small acts of bravery are indescribably valuable. If we continue to fight for what we believe in, we can preserve the spirit of individuality and liberty that defines America.
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