Greenwich, West Haven, Northwestern Regional students win top prizes; honorable mentions to six schools
By Mary Connolly, CFOG Essay Contest Chairperson
Naomi Kostman, a junior at Greenwich High School, won first prize in the 2018 Connecticut Foundation for Open Government high school essay contest.
Naomi was awarded $1,000 for her essay about First Amendment protections for National Football League players who kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racial inequality and police treatment of minorities.
“The First Amendment protects the right of NFL players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem due to government involvement, legal precedent governing national symbols, and the presence of racial tensions …,” she wrote. “Any attempt by the NFL to punish players who choose to kneel during the anthem would be a direct infringement on the First Amendment, as such punitive actions can be arguably a result of government pressure.”
CFOG, a nonprofit educational organization, sponsors the essay contest each year to encourage thought and debate among students on public and freedom of information issues and to increase student knowledge of the value of open government in a democratic society.
A second prize of $500 was won by Briance Ramirez, a junior at West Haven High School. Briance wrote about whether the First Amendment protects a baker’s decision not to make a cake for a same-sex couple, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“(Jack) Phillips claims that he can legally refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because his religion condemns homosexuality and his refusal is protected constitutionally,” Briance wrote. “However, the First Amendment does not give someone the right to oppose another based on sexual orientation and the Colorado Civil Rights law helps protect minority civil rights and ensure nondiscrimination.”
A third prize of $300 was won by Adam Choquette, a senior at Northwestern Regional High School in Winsted, who also wrote about the NFL/anthem issue.
“Clearly, the courts have ruled that the First Amendment does not protect players from being fired by a private employer, but that does not mean that the NFL will be able to fire players with ease, nor does it mean that such firing conforms to the spirit of the Constitution,” Adam wrote. “NFL players are not hired at will, but rather according to the terms of the contract which they sign with their team’s owner.”
Honorable mention awards of $50 went to Ashley Brown and Hannah Scheyder of East Lyme High School, Ariba Chaudhry of Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Sumedha Chowdhury and Emily Golding of West Haven High School, Kenneth Cox of Engineering and Science University Magnet High School in West Haven, Christopher McDonnell of Greenwich High School, and Henry Vanase of Norwich Free Academy.
Students were asked to write essays on one of three topics:
- After a student-organized speech, “It is OK to be White,” ended in a shouting and shoving match, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst proposed new rules for speakers and events on campus. Safety concerns and the background of speakers and their affiliates will have to be evaluated under the rules. Does this hamper free expression on campus?
- The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case involving a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing his religious beliefs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found the baker violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. Does the First Amendment protect the baker’s decision not to make a cake for a same-sex couple?
- Does the First Amendment protect the right of National Football League players to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racial inequality and police treatment of minorities?
Judges for the contest were Janet Manko, Martin Margulies, Tom Crider, Lyn Hottes, Forrest Palmer, Eileen FitzGerald and Mary Connolly.Here is Naomi Kostman’s first place essay:
Patriotism is a staple of American culture and law. Every morning, public school staff across the nation are legally required to lead their students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, as they face the American flag. The issue arises when patriotism clashes with another major American principle, freedom, as recently seen in the controversy surrounding the decision of several NFL players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem. The First Amendment protects the right of NFL players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem due to government involvement, legal precedent governing national symbols, and the presence of racial tensions.
Although the NFL is a private corporation, government involvement surrounding the protests has granted players the protection of the First Amendment. The First Amendment states,” … Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” The NFL itself is a private corporation and can, therefore, restrict the speech of its employees. However, recent comments coming from the president and attorney general present themselves as pressures from the government to infringe upon the rights of NFL players.
President Trump tweeted on Sept. 27, 2017, “The only way … is to set a rule that you can’t kneel …,” while Attorney General Jefferson Sessions affirmed, “They should be able to say to the players,’… you should respect the flag and the national anthem.’” The government pressure reflected in these comments means that NFL players are protected by the First Amendment. Any attempt by the NFL to punish players who choose to kneel during the anthem would be a direct infringement on the First Amendment, as such punitive actions can be arguably a result of government pressure.
It is also important to note that the anthem does not present itself as an exception to the freedom of expression. In Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Gregory Johnson to burn the American flag as a form of speech, and stated that the government did not have the power to restrict what messages symbols could be used to express. As a result of this legal precedent, NFL players have the right to kneel, despite the national importance of the anthem. The anthem can be used to express the suffering of the black community as legitimately as it is used to express national pride.
In addition, the NFL players are protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits any form of discrimination in the workplace. The decision to kneel during the anthem is one that represents disapproval of the murder of innocent black Americans at the hands of police officers due to racial stereotyping. Any attempt to silence protest against discrimination would be legally seen as a display of support for prejudice, which is prohibited in the workplace.
The First Amendment protects the right of NFL players to kneel during the anthem because of recent government involvement, legal precedent governing symbolic speech, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Subsequently, the NFL did not punish Colin Kaepernick, one of the first players to kneel, but there were still consequences for the quarterback. Kaepernick was left an unsigned player during the offseason of 2017. No team was willing to take him because of his choice to speak up against police brutality, despite his athletic superiority over other quarterbacks.
In order for the government to truly protect all people from being silenced, it must begin to strike down laws that treat national symbols, such as the anthem, as holy under the state. By promoting intense patriotism, the American government has advocated for the restriction of First Amendment rights.
Naomi Kostman, Greenwich High School, Grade 11. Teacher: Aaron Hull