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2021 FIRE Free Speech Essay Contest Winners

Another year, another $20,000 in scholarships awarded to nine fantastic essay writers. The results are here for FIRE Annual Free Speech Essay Competitionand we have inspiring essays to share and student-authors to congratulate.

We asked students to write a persuasive letter or essay to convince their peers that free speech is a better idea than censorship – and we’re, as always, impressed with the creativity and carefully crafted arguments that abound. in submissions.

Our winners should be very proud of themselves for producing essays that stand out among the nearly 2,000 submissions we received. We were thrilled to read how passionate so many students are about freedom of expression – the future is bright!

Special thanks to first-place winner Sabrina Morera from Doral, Florida, whose essay is so good we had to include it in our new lesson plan for teachers: Freedom of Speech in America Compared to Other Countries. The essay illustrates the troubling history of censorship in Cuba, giving students a glimpse into what life is like in a place intolerant of dissidents. You can read his full essay below.

Here are the best of the best of 2021:

First place – $10,000 scholarship

Sabrina Morera — Doral Performing Arts and Entertainment Academy (Doral, Florida)

Second place – $5,000 scholarship

Jessica Atkins — Mother of Divine Grace School (Ojai, California)

Third place – $1,000 scholarship

Zoe Leatherwood — Arlington High School (Arlington, Tennessee)

Benjamin Heim — Lenox Memorial High School (Lenox, Mass.)

Max Abubucker – Towson High School (Towson, Maryland)

Finalists – $500 scholarship

Eleanor Israel — Home Life Academy (Jackson, Tenn.)

Nick Odle — Homeschooling (Rochester, NY)

Josh Mason – Greater Atlanta Christian School (Norcross, Ga.)

Christopher Danner – Red Lion Area High School (Red Lion, PA)


Sabrina Morera First Place – $10,000 Scholarship

In 1980, my mother was a senior in high school, as I am today. Like me, she yearned to go to college and study what she was passionate about. However, when my uncle tried to leave the country, she was not allowed to go to college because of my family’s political beliefs. Throughout his years in the Cuban educational system, he had been taught to glorify a government that, led by Castro, imprisoned, tortured and executed those who disagreed with that system. For this reason, they feared that someone like her, aware of the reality of the country, would receive an education. Authoritarian governments fear freethinkers because they can create change and lead others to freedom. Thus, freedom in educational institutions is a virtue to be valued, because it allows us to create the future we want—rather than the one 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 go to university regardless of my family’s political opinion. So that, unlike my great-uncle, I will not be incarcerated and tortured for not supporting the government. So, unlike my uncle, I would not be threatened if I ever tried to leave the country. So that unlike all Cubans, I am not indoctrinated and censored throughout my schooling. Today, free speech is at risk in universities across the United States, which puts democracy at risk.

Propaganda poster in Havana, Cuba, circa 2012, featuring revolution-era photos of (left to right) Camilo Cienfuegos, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Fidel Castro.Propaganda poster in Havana, Cuba, circa 2012, with photos (left to right) of Communist Party of Cuba founder Julio Antonio Mella and revolutionaries Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, along with the phrase ” Todo por la revolución” or “Everything for the revolution.” (wikipedia.org)

My awareness of the importance of freedom was nurtured by knowing what it is like to live without it. When students are not allowed to speak freely, it prevents them from learning, understanding others and creating a better future. When institutions censor students, it creates an atmosphere of fear. How can this happen in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, the country that has been considered a beacon of freedom? The First Amendment to the Constitution grants freedom of speech to the people of the United States. If this is restricted in colleges, not only is the Constitution violated, but a generation of Americans learns to diminish the value of their freedom and to conform to the limitations imposed by those in power. This puts our country’s democracy at risk, because a college education has a great 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 bias. However, if students are taught that they should all think the same way and are not allowed to hear opposing opinions, this balance will be upset – taking away the essence of the United States.

Student rights must be respected in colleges, just as they must be respected by any government or leader.

The concept of freedom is one that has been explored by people from different backgrounds and political spectrums. For example, Cuban thinker José Martí described freedom as “every man’s right to be honest, to think and speak without hypocrisy”. Likewise, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin described freedom as a right, which “is not a gift bestowed on us by other men, but a right given to us by the gods and nature.” Freedom has been seen by philosophers as a right to think and express oneself, a right that we receive at birth and that men should not take. This concept of natural rights comes from Enlightenment thinker John Locke, who said that we are all born with natural rights – life, liberty, and property – which cannot be taken away by government. The United States was founded with these

principles, because they constitute an essential aspect of the Constitution. Why should an educational institution, which empowers students to shape their future, have the power to carry away the ideals that shaped this country?

The suppression of freedom at lower levels, such as schools, can serve as a catalyst for the elimination of freedom on a larger scale. It would follow the models of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, revolutionary Cuba and many other dictatorships which did not allow young people to really learn and be exposed to ideas different from those which gave them been imposed. One should be able to express any belief without any kind of fear, as this is the reason why many left their home countries or rebelled against their government. Lack of freedom, historically, has led to rebellion – we can see this with monarchies and authoritarian governments. Therefore, the suppression of freedom in colleges can lead to demonstrations of rebellion, or conversely can lead to fear – both of which can be avoided by respecting the constitutional rights of students.

Overall, student rights must be respected in colleges, just as they must be respected by any government or leader. Freedom leads to creation, collaboration and understanding, while censorship leads to insurrection, misunderstanding and narrow-mindedness. As a Cuban-American, I learned that freedom prevails in darkness. I witnessed how free thought led my parents to a better future, and how the lack of freedom in a country leads to uneducated and uninformed citizens. Therefore, students like me should use their freedom of expression to limit censorship, because freedom is a vehicle for progress and knowledge.


Be sure to check out other best essays here.

We will be opening the 2022 competition in September, so be sure to flag current sophomores and juniors our orientation if they want a chance to win their share of the $20,000 we distribute each year to those who write the best student essays.


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