Three high school students were honored at the 16th Annual Milton Sorokin Symposium this May as winners of the First Amendment Essay Contest. Over 150 high school students from around Connecticut submitted essays on the question, "under what circumstances (if any) should a school be able to punish students for their speech off campus?" Ben Wilbanks from Greenwich High School won $1000 as the Ethel S. Sorokin Grand Prize essay winner. Cheetiri Smith, from West Haven High School wrote the Second Prize winning essay, and Anna Schlessinger from Westhill High School in Stamford won the Third Prize. Highlights from the winning essays can be found below.
Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer presented the awards to the students. He also paid tribute to Ethel S. Sorokin, co-Founder of the Center for First Amendment Rights (CFAR), which sponsored the essay contest for ten years before CFAR merged with the ACLU-CT last year.
Over 100 people attended this year's symposium on students and schools pushing the limits of free speech. Reporter Laurie Perez served as moderator. One panelist was Mary Beth Tinker, who was the plaintiff in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, which helped establish students' free speech rights at schools. Patrice McCarthy, from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education offered perspective from the point of view of school administrators who need leeway in dealing with students when their off-campus speech may disrupt the school environment. The discussion on balancing students' free speech rights with school disruptions was engaging and civil, and the audience had many interesting questions for the two panelists. After the symposium, the essay contest winners, speakers, and attendees continued the discussion over refreshments.
Highlights of winning essays From First Amendment Essay Contest
Ben Wilbanks from Greenwich High School observes in his essay that the internet can turn an individual's emotional comments written in haste or anger into a widely disseminated and lasting record. However, Ben is troubled by the idea of school oversight students' off-campus speech. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet taken up this issue, Ben hopes the Court will, "consider the benefits that students can gain by having the same free speech rights in their homes that all other Americans enjoy."
Read the Ethel S. Sorokin Grand Prize Essay (18 KB)
Cheetiri Smith from West Haven High School discusses the problems of schools' attempts to extend their disciplinary role off-campus. Cheetiri compares cases involving underground student publications with cyber speech cases. She argues that off-campus speech should be protected by the First Amendment unless off-campus speech poses a threat to the safety of students or staff.
Read the Second Prize Essay (24 KB)
Anna Schlessinger from Westhill High School (Stamford) examines how innovations such as the internet and growing media complicate the issue of students' free speech rights since off-campus speech can now easily make its way onto school grounds. She writes that schools must continue to discipline students for inappropriate speech off-campus that is crude, violent, disruptive, or makes running the school more difficult.
Read the Third Prize Essay (16 KB)