FIRE’s High School Outreach team recently published the winners of the 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 first, 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.
First Place Entry
Sabrina Morera — Doral Performing Arts and Entertainment Academy (Doral, Fla.)
In the year 1980, my mom was a senior in high school, like I am today. Like me, she aspired to attend college and study what she was passionate about. However, when my uncle tried leaving the country, she was not allowed to go to college due to my family’s political beliefs. Throughout her years in the Cuban education system, she had been taught to glorify a government, which, led by Castro, imprisoned, tortured, and executed those who disagreed with this system. For this reason, they feared that someone like her, who was aware of the reality of the country, would receive an education. Authoritarian governments fear free thinkers, as they can create change and lead others towards liberty. Hence, freedom in educational institutions is a virtue which one should value, as it allows us to create the future that we want — rather than one that is imposed on us.
My parents brought me to this country at a young age for one thing: freedom. They brought me so that, unlike my mother, I would attend college regardless of my family’s political opinion. So that, unlike my great uncle, I would not be incarcerated and tortured for not supporting the government. So that unlike my uncle, I would not be threatened if I ever tried to leave the country. So that unlike every Cuban, I would not be indoctrinated and censored throughout my education. Today, free speech is in danger in universities throughout the United States — posing democracy at risk.
My awareness of the importance of freedom has been harbored by cognizance of what it is like to live without it. When students are not allowed to speak freely, it takes away from their ability to learn, understand others, and create a better future. When institutions censor students, it creates an ambiance of fear. How can this occur in the “land of the free, and the home of the brave,” the country which has been seen as a beacon of liberty? The first amendment to the Constitution grants freedom of expression to the people of the United States. If this is limited in colleges, not only is the Constitution being violated, but a generation of Americans are being taught to diminish the value of their freedom and to conform to limitations imposed by those with power. This places our country’s democracy in danger, as college education has a large influence on young people — the future leaders and professionals of the United States.
Censorship creates a uniformity with which this country was not founded. Historically, the two-party system in the United States has maintained democracy and prevented one-sidedness. However, if students are taught that they must all think the same and are not allowed to hear opposing opinions, this balance will be tipped — taking away the essence of the United States.
The concept of freedom is one that has been explored by people of different backgrounds and political spectrums. For example, the Cuban thinker José Martí, described liberty as “the right of every man to be honest, to think and speak without hypocrisy.” Similarly, founding father Benjamin Franklin described freedom as a right, one which “is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the Gods and nature.” Freedom has been seen by philosophers as a right to think and express ourselves, one which we receive at birth and should not be taken by men. This concept of natural rights roots from enlightenment thinker John Locke, who stated that we are all born with natural rights — life, liberty, and property — those of which cannot be taken away by the government. The United States was founded with these principles, as they are a primary aspect of the Constitution. Why should an educational institution, which allows students to form their future, be given the power to take away the ideals which formed this country?
Taking away freedom at lower levels, such as schools, can serve as a catalyst to the elimination of liberty on a larger scale. This would follow the patterns of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Revolutionary Cuba, and many other dictatorships which have not allowed the youth to truly learn and be exposed to ideas different than the ones that have been imposed upon them. One should be able to express any belief without any sort of fear, as this is the reason that many have left their home countries or rebelled against their government. Lack of freedom, historically, has led to rebellion — one can see this with monarchies and authoritarian governments. Therefore, taking away freedom in colleges can lead to manifestations of rebellion, or can opposingly lead to fear — both of which can be avoided by respecting students’ Constitutional rights.
Overall, students’ rights should be respected in colleges, the same way that they should be respected by any government or ruler. Freedom leads to creation, collaboration, and understanding, while censorship leads to insurrection, misunderstanding, and closed-mindedness. As a Cuban American, I have learned that freedom prevails in darkness. I have been witness to how free thinking has brought my parents towards a better future, and how lack of freedom in a country leads to uneducated and uninformed citizens. Hence, students like me should use their freedom of speech to limit censorship, as freedom is a vehicle for progress and knowledge.
Second Place Entry
Jessica Atkins — Mother of Divine Grace School (Ojai, Calif.)
“You Don’t Really Want Censorship”
In April of 2021, Del Norte Students for Life, the pro-life club that I co-founded at Del Norte High School, shared a post on Instagram to recruit new members. The post from @dnstudents4life unexpectedly exploded with almost 4,000 comments. It was the first time the club was gaining publicity and pushback from other students. Most comments were negative, but what was most surprising was not the insults but the number of comments opposing freedom of speech. The board policy of Poway Unified School District, where Del Norte is located, includes the principle that “free inquiry and exchange of ideas are essential parts of a democratic education.” Although the administration respects this policy, that April, students took censorship into their own hands and tried to have my controversial club canceled on campus and silenced on social media.
Someone commented on the Instagram post, “This topic is very controversial and it's not okay that Del Norte even allowed this club to be verified in the first place.” A student began a petition on change.org to remove the club from campus, which gained 1,120 signatures. One petition supporter commented, “There is no place for politics other than what you're learning in class at Del Norte.”
There is a place for politics on campus, and it’s not the unconstitutional “free speech zones” found at some schools. All students should be able to express their opinions on American campuses without censorship, no matter how unpopular. In 1965, students in Iowa wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War after the school board banned it for being “too
controversial.” When Mary Beth and John Tinker and their friend Christopher were suspended for wearing the armbands, the Tinkers sued the school district. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, which decided to defend the students’ rights, writing that “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District).
Free speech violations like the Tinkers’ case occur on American campuses each year, but the bigger issue is that students themselves are supporting “cancel culture,” and want views they consider “wrong” to be censored. Whether the Tinkers’ views about the Vietnam War were right or wrong, or whether our club's views about abortion are right or wrong, what is essential is that the freedom of speech is protected for all. It is good that even those who are blatantly mistaken can voice their thoughts.
In 1644, John Milton wrote in his Areopagitica that the world’s ability to judge falsehood from truth is injured when speech is censored. Although the truth can be buried in the amount of falsehood in a world where free speech is protected, it can still be found. However, in a world where truth is subject to what an authority regards as sure and secure or censurable, and thus censorable, the truth might never be heard. Moreover, discernment of falsehood will be difficult if people stop exercising their right to challenge popular views and instead naively take what their authority regards as “truth” for granted. When students support censorship of some voices on campus, they are consequently supporting censorship of their own voices. The acceptable opinion can alter as much as the authority can be replaced in such environments.
Some people spammed the DNSL Instagram post’s comments with reduplicated song lyrics and emojis in order to swamp and suppress intellectual dialogue. A nonmember of the club purchased Instagram “bots” to raise our number of followers from the hundreds to the thousands, which led others to believe that we had purchased “bots” in order to look good. All of this was a diversion from honest discussion between pro-life and pro-choice students who wanted to focus on the heart of the issue rather than merely humiliate the other side; it was an attempt to silence everyone’s voices.
Other students who did not agree with the club’s views bravely stood up as Milton did for freedom of speech, emphasizing in the Instagram post’s comments that the club’s rights are protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Thankfully, Del Norte’s administration did not cave in to the petition to cancel the club, but upheld its right to remain on campus and exercise the freedom of speech, as should be expected. Despite some students’ attempts to censor the club, much good came out of the affair. The Associative Student Body responded with their own Instagram post reminding students of the Equal Access Act, passed in 1984, which requires American high schools to treat student groups of all religious, political, and philosophical beliefs equally (@dnhsasb).
Because our club’s rights are being protected, more students are willing to speak their minds at school. A pro-choice club now exists on campus alongside our pro-life club, allowing for free debate between both sides. When students encounter clubs or individuals with whom they disagree, they should stop to listen and voice their own opinions rather than censoring themselves and their opponents. Freedom of speech allows for consideration of more perspectives, which helps students choose their beliefs instead of conforming to whatever is most accepted. For all voices to be heard, it is important that students access resources from organizations like FIRE so they can fight back against violations of their rights or the rights of others—including those of their rivals.
Third Place Entries
Zoe Leatherwood — Arlington High School (Arlington, Tenn.)
“Free Speech: You’ve Got It All Wrong”
My dear America,
I have heard of this First Amendment that you hold so close. This “freedom of speech” that you apparently feel is the bedrock of your nation. But you must permit me to express my concerns. Surely you don’t actually believe this? That every person in your country and around the world should be allowed to say whatever they want, even to the point of criticizing their government? That this “free speech” is their basic, inborn, human right? It’s preposterous!
Let us take a look at history, and perhaps you will better see my perspective. You say that it is only through bold, free speech that problems can be pointed out, fallacies corrected, and progress made. That it was the courageous words of people like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and others that displayed the evils of the slavery system that was so prevalent in the 1850’s. That it is the free speech of citizens today that shows the inequality still present in your land. I say that it was Lincoln, Douglass and Tubman’s words that led to war. It’s the freedom of your people who today parade around “peacefully protesting” that has led to the political divide in your land. There was no such divide in the height of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. You say it was because the people in those countries had no freedom to express their opposition and right the wrongs. I say it’s because their leaders had the right idea. It is only when all are in agreement (whether willing or forced) that there can be peace. And it’s only during peacetime that true social progress can be made in a country. Take for example, Germany. Before Hitler, it was a disintegrating country that no one noticed. Then he came and turned it upside down until it became the most feared nation of its time. You say millions died in the process; I say greatness requires sacrifice. And freedom is one of those sacrifices. Including those that you call “unalienable”.
Shall we turn to the more practical side of the matter? Shall I point out that even if a nation never did achieve greatness, there are still some necessities that its people require to survive, and freedom is certainly not one of them. Can free speech put food on your table? No, only a kind and generous government can do that. And should the people under that government be allowed to criticize when it does things necessary to ensure its future success? Of course not. Even a dog knows not to bite the hand that provides for it. You say a people should have the freedom to choose what kind of government rules over it, and to what extent. And when that government goes beyond that extent, the people have the right to speak up. I say that is absurd. You have set up a government with so many rules and checks on power that it is impossible everyone will agree. You have constant strife as one “free voice” after another raises their objections, unchecked. And you call it democracy. Whereas I can set up a government in which every need is addressed in a careful, government-controlled manner, with no objections raised. It will be a silent people that is ruled, but a peaceful one. How can you say that is not better than what you have now? Just because what you have now allows every voice to be heard and ensures there is never a majority whose needs and desires are ignored by a powerful, elite few? That can only happen on democracy’s best day. A day that seems impossible to reach in your present circumstances. But by all means, continue to fight and struggle and dream for that day. All in the name of your precious freedoms.
Are you by now ready to throw my letter into the fire? Do so at your own peril. But what you call heavy handedness and blind ambition, I call honesty. Yours is a country divided almost to the point of no repair. Your ‘champion of freedom’, Abraham Lincoln, himself stated when he quoted the words of Jesus, “A house divided cannot stand.” Will you at this point stubbornly say that it is through democracy that this problem can be fixed? That free speech will prevail until a conclusion is reached? That all voices will be heard, until a solution can be created that works for all? Well, I say “good luck”. It will never work. It goes against human nature. And if at this point you want to interrupt me to point out that all of my examples of authoritarian governments censored their people, and indeed every known government in history that has done the same, has fallen, and quickly; don’t bother. I know that those governments and their systems were flawed. But in the end, I maintain my conclusion. Who would really rather fight for freedom just because it’s their “natural right” than have the government take all the guesswork out of it? The decision seems obvious to me. But the choice is yours, America. After all, you are called “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” And apparently, you believe it.
President Coriolanus Snow
(Fictional letter from Coriolanus Snow (antagonist of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games)).
Benjamin Heim — Lenox Memorial High School (Lenox, Mass.)
In his “Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston,” Frederick Douglass asserted his belief that the dominion of slavery could not withstand free speech: “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.” Douglass recognized that granting free speech to black men and women would quickly extinguish this inhuman practice, forcing slave-owners to relinquish their power and free black Americans. History proved Douglass prescient in his evaluation with the nation-wide abolition of slavery following five years after his plea. Douglass’s exercise of a right not yet granted to him reveals the powerful manifestation of free speech: the dynamism of America.
Despite the Federalists’ insistence that the Constitution would restrict rapid change due to factionalism, the First Amendment creates unparalleled dynamism. The historian Thomas Ricks posits this paradigm: “America is a moving target, a goal that must always be pursued but never quite reached.” The movement within our American system is perpetual and progressive. With each new day, election, and generation, a novel set of values alters the direction of our nation towards a new, if unattainable, zenith. It is this principle that empowered the civil war, women’s suffrage, and the New Deal. Of course, this dynamism is not without fault, enabling many mistakes in American history. However, the symphony played by the sum of American decisions is positive, characterized by a progression to a more equal society. Still, freedom of speech does not permit us to stand by and enjoy the symphony unaware of its shortcomings. It forces us to move towards a more perfect version of America, recognizing our faults and working to fix them. It is this awareness and dynamism that has apprised America of the need for diversity and inclusion following the death of George Floyd in 2020. Like the rest of American history, the tool best fit for this goal is the same: free speech.
Not only is free speech necessary for advancing the cause of diversity in America, but it also reveals why diversity is so powerful. Alexander Meiklejohn, a foundational free speech advocate of the twentieth century, illustrates the purpose of the First Amendment: “The First Amendment . . . was written to clear the way for thinking which serves the general welfare. It offers defense to men who plan and advocate and incite towards corporate action for the common good.” The First Amendment protects individuals to advocate for a stronger community and better tomorrow. And in working for the advancement of social welfare, diversity offers the best opportunity to achieve “action for the common good.” John Stuart Mill, an English advocate for liberty, argues for the value of diversity of thought:
“Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness.” Mill argues that individuals cannot reach a perfect truth on their own. However, it is possible to find truth in the individual beliefs of many. It is the reconciliation, the conglomeration of individual ideas to form a cohesive argument, in which we find wisdom. This reconciliation requires diverse opinions, finding truth in each individual perspective. It is because of this conglomeration of diverse opinions that Douglass stated that freedom of speech is “the great moral renovator of society.” It moves us towards publicly determined justice by displacing extremity of views and finding a new middle ground, acknowledging error in our past habits of thinking.
It is tempting to silence those who adhere to extreme modes of thinking, viewing those perspectives as hindering American progress. However, Mill criticizes this argument: “Our merely social intolerance . . . roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.” Active debate reveals inadequacies in ideas and thus forces their reconstruction to better fit reality. Socially pressuring others to hide their beliefs in fear of ostracization hurts the American experiment. Diversity is only as valuable as it is expressed. Silencing unpopular opinions protects inaccurate perspectives from reformation, and it harms our own views in that we overlook evidence that others see. Standing up for what you believe in is daunting. However, debate with diverse views advances us towards a more cogent conclusion, alleviating the blur of our individual biases. Exercising free speech for the advancement of truth is a selfless act—it places the common good of our country above our own egos.
Free expression bolsters the dynamism that has moved us closer towards fulfilling the American promise of liberty and justice for all. Still, Mill concedes that even in the pursuit of truth through reconciling differing views, we are fallible: “Yet it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd.” The ideas we assert today will likely not stand the test of time. But by acknowledging our fallibility, we allow America’s progress to prevail: prioritizing diverse perspectives to identify and address our past mistakes, producing a more equal and just America in which every individual can flourish.
Max Abubucker — Towson High School (Towson, Md.)
Dear fellow students,
Our generation is one of dreamers and fighters. I am surrounded by passionate friends and classmates who are deeply committed to causes such as racial justice, climate change, and constitutional rights. We are not just getting fired up about issues, but are acting on them – spreading information on social media, creating student groups, and hitting the pavement to protest. Our generation is going to change the world.
However, my optimism is tempered by a grave fear. I have too often noticed – not only in the news, but in the hallways of my own school – that our commitment to our opinions leads to intolerance towards the opinions of others. The zeal to do good is turning into silencing, shaming, and “cancelling” fellow Americans. This is an alarming threat to the progress that our generation could make. We must remember how we obtained the right to advocate for our principles. For the majority of history, kings and others in power held tight control over what one could say. There were no legal protests, dissenting newspapers, or opposition parties. Criticizing the institutions of power puts one at risk of prison or death. It wasn’t until the 18th-century Enlightenment movement that the right to free speech began its slow ascent to the light of day. Philosophers such as John Locke and Voltaire provided theoretical underpinnings for our natural rights, which included the rights to criticize and reform the government, free speech, and religious freedom.
The Enlightenment movement sparked revolutions across the world, the first being our own in 1776. Our country would not have been born without freedom of speech. It was the revolutionary pamphlets, the committees of correspondence, and the political cartoons that gave our country the will and organization to fight for independence. After gaining independence, the vigorous debate over the Constitution spurred the founders to adapt and compromise. One of those compromises was the very Bill of Rights that protects free speech.
Free speech, the bedrock of American democracy, is today being threatened across the country. On college campuses, meant to be bastions of open learning and vibrant debate, free speech is severely restricted. Most colleges have speech codes – guidelines that ban inappropriate speech – that are often used to target dissenting opinions. Colleges have been known to disinvite controversial speakers and refuse to recognize student groups because of their “objectionable” views. For example, the pro-life group Voice for Life was denied recognition at Johns Hopkins University. When colleges are forced to allow different perspectives, they frequently relegate them to small “free-speech zones.” In a shocking example, Modesto Junior College prevented a student from handing out copies of the Constitution outside of the free speech area. It took a lawsuit for Modesto to scrap this policy and intense public pressure for Hopkins to reverse its decision. Just this year, in the case Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, the Supreme Court awarded damages because students were not allowed to preach their religion even within the free-speech zone.
The scariest part is that these restrictions are not instituted by out-of-touch and authoritarian college presidents or trustee boards. They are called for by students who feel it is appropriate to muzzle “offensive” views. When colleges disinvite speakers, it is often because student groups protest and sometimes riot. When colleges ban student groups, it is usually done
based on student opposition. The Hopkins decision against the pro-life group was made by the student government. The evangelizers in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski were silenced as a result of student demands.
The view that we must stifle opinions we object to is one I have observed with disturbing frequency in our generation. At my high school, students who express minority political opinions are not met with counter arguments, but are instead shunned or even bullied. In the very same class where I learned about Tinker v. Des Moines, the landmark Supreme Court case that enshrined the right to free speech in public schools, I bit my tongue during “debates” over controversial issues because I knew that expressing my opinion would lead to harassment, not constructive discussion.
By attacking those whom we disagree with, we are turning to what French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville viewed as the greatest danger of democracy: the “tyranny of the majority.” In our quest for change, we must not forget the principles that make change possible. We must defend the right of all people to share their ideas, while promoting ours and rebutting others. In “On Liberty,” ardent free speech defender John Stuart Mill wrote, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
We have the same moral right to censor the ideas of others that they have to censor our ideas: none. Accepting anything less relegates what we can think and say to the whims of those with the most power. Ideals that we take for granted today, such as equal rights for women and the inhumanity of slavery, were once radical ideas held by a minority. The suffragettes and abolitionists were the ones being censored and threatened. They persevered and changed the world through passionate advocacy, peaceful protest, and stubborn demands. That is how we are going to change the world as well.
Best of luck,