2012 Top CFOG Essay Contest Winners

First Place
Victoria Hoffmeister
Grade 11, Greenwich High School
Teacher: Aaron Hull

The right to assemble is fundamental to American democracy. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 22, “[America]… rest[s] on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE,… [the] fountain of all legitimate authority” (Hamilton). Assembly enables the people to exercise this “authority,” direct the actions of government, and call attention to important causes. It provides a safety-valve for anger and is essential in orchestrating grassroots change.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, expected to reemerge this summer, recently exemplified the importance of assembly as a means to peacefully express frustration and bring national attention to pressing issues. Occupy Wall Street is also significant in that some scholars regard it as the “new progressive movement” (Sachs). Columbia University Professor Jeffery Sachs views the current era as the third time in American history that “powerful corporate interests [have] dominated Washington and brought America to a state of unacceptable inequality, instability and corruption,” and sees the Occupy Wall Street movement as an opportunity “to restore democracy and shared prosperity” to America (Sachs).

Although the right to assemble is fundamental to American democracy, it can be legally and constitutionally subordinated to taxpayers’ rights to clean, safe public spaces and to cities’ administrative rights (Paulson). Recently, local governments have taken a selfish rather than democratic approach to imposing limits on Occupy Wall Street, justifying policy with technicalities and vague arguments for the ‘greater good of the community’. Limits on assembly are a practical necessity, but should not be selectively used as expedients by government to evict displeasing protestors and subdue dissent.

The Supreme Court upholds only the restrictions on assembly that regulate the time, place or manner of demonstrations, are content-neutral, narrow, and nondiscriminatory, and have rational basis. University of Michigan Professor Don Herzog offers an example: a city periodically requires everyone to leave a public park for maintenance, whether people are holding “Impeach Obama!” or “Reelect Obama!” signs. The city is within its right to regulate assembly as its clearing of the park is nondiscriminatory, content-neutral and has rational basis (Arsenault).

City governments sometimes take advantage of technical rights to limit assembly if they consider certain protests unfavorable. Last November, the NYPD shut down Occupy Wall Street by setting up barricades, closing streets, and destroying tents (Downie). Such police actions are incompatible with the American spirit of democracy, freedom, and reverence for First Amendment rights. The forcible eviction of protestors justified by vague statements about ‘safety risks’ begs a profound constitutional question: is assembly a fickle freedom, only protected until government decides protests are inconvenient? Assembly should be viewed as a crucial, fundamental freedom that enables ordinary citizens to affect change when the nation needs it most. Governments must not only consider selfish interests in regulating protests but must understand the different course history would have taken had pragmatists always succeeded in limiting assembly (as in the eviction of Occupy Wall Street). Had pragmatists triumphed, we would live in a racist, segregated society. Women and blacks would be disenfranchised. Child labor, insufficient wages, and 70+ hour workweeks would abound (“Progressive Era Reform”). Pragmatists are not celebrated as the great crusaders of history. Few people would reverently place Mayor Bloomberg alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on their mantles.

In the face of Occupy Wall Street, municipal governments did what was technically permissible instead of what was in the true spirit of America. Government cannot be truly open and accountable if it manufactures limits to unfavorable assembly and dissent. Occupy Wall Street may have the capacity “to restore democracy and shared prosperity” to America (Sachs). Without legitimate, dedicated government protection of the right to assemble, the Occupy movement will never achieve its laudable goals.

Works Cited
Arsenault, Mark. “Occupy Boston Case a Test of Free Speech.” The Boston Globe. 04 Dec. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. . Downie, James. “Bloomberg’s Disgraceful Eviction of Occupy Wall Street.” The Washington Post:. 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2012. . Hamilton, Alexander. “The Federalist No. 22.” New York Packet 14 Dec. 1787. Constitution Society. Web. 5 Oct. 2011. ;. Paulson, Ken. “Freedom to Assemble, Not Camp Out Indefinitely.” First Amendment Center. 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. . “Progressive Era Reform.” Documenting “The Other Half” University of Virginia. Web. 17 Mar. 2012. ;. Sachs, Jeffery D. “The New Progressive Movement.” The New York Times. 12 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. ;.

 

Second Place
Kseniya Rogulina
Grade 11, West Haven High School
Teacher: Mark Consorte

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has raised questions regarding the use of public places for political protests. Recently many have debated whether or not limitations should be placed on the First Amendment right to freedom of assembly. I believe strongly that placing limitations on this guaranteed right would be both unreasonable and unconstitutional.

Before the Constitution was passed, many people fought for a Bill of Rights that protected the inalienable rights of every person. England’s King George III imposed his will upon the colonists, and denied them the right to assemble regularly (“Road”). However, the rebellious American colonists continued to assemble, and government restrictions placed upon them motivated them to fight harder against tyranny. Historically, government limitations on the right to assemble have produced negative results and will likely yield the same results in the future.

Social movements such as abolition, women’s rights and civil rights have had monumental effects on the country. In the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s planned protests, where oppressed individuals gathered together and publicly protested the racial injustices they faced, were very effective. Thousands of people participated in sit-ins and marches, and “by August 1961, they had attracted over 70,000 participants” (“Civil”). This large scale assembly influenced legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended the public segregation of African Americans. If government limitations were placed on the right to assemble, then the attention of the nation would not have focused on this issue and such important legislation would not have been passed.

Public protest benefits the country in several ways. When not limited by the government, public protest provides an open forum through which people who share an opinion can draw attention to their cause. Large groups of people passionately protesting shows government officials what matters to the American public, and what issues desperately need to be resolved. Furthermore, through public protest, the American people can prevent government officials from being tyrannical and business leaders from becoming corrupt. For example, the OWS movement has shined a spotlight on corporate greed and government abuse. The OWS movement is “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations, through people’s assembly” (“Occupy”).

If the government places restrictions upon an inalienable right, then what is to stop it from placing restrictions on all civil liberties? Government determining the extent of the people’s freedom is very dangerous and always ends in disaster. A prime example of this is the former Soviet Union. What began with a few limitations on economic policies resulted in an oppressive totalitarian state (“Human”). Eventually, people lost the right to free speech and were punished for any negative comments made about the government.

In conclusion, placing limitations upon human rights does more harm than good. Historical evidence demonstrates the dangers of limiting freedom, as well as the great things people can achieve when working together to promote a noble cause. While violent protests should not be tolerated, no limits should be placed on peaceful public protests which serve to protect the freedom of the American public.

Works Cited
“Civil Rights Movement 1955-1965: Sit-Ins.” Www.watson.org. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.
<http://www.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/civilrights-55-65/sit-ins.html>;.
“Human Rights in the Soviet Union.” Wikipedia. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_the_Soviet_Union>;.
“OccupyWallSt.org.” Occupy Wall Street | NYC Protest for World Revolution. Web. 17 Feb.
2012. <http://occupywallst.org/about/>;.
“The Road to Revolution.” Digital History. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.
<http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=266>;.

Third Place
Dana Xu
9th Grade, Joseph A. Foran High School, Milford
Teacher: Sarah DiGiacomo

Running for president is no small feat. When campaigning, you should expect to be the subject of judgment of many people if you are aspiring to become one of the most powerful and influential people in the world. Presidential candidates face scrutiny from the public and the media and their personal lives may be invaded by other candidates trying to bring them down. In my opinion, this is absolutely fair game. I think that the public has the right to know the entire person they are electing and not just the one side they choose to display. Presidential candidates should be aware prior to running that there is almost no privacy; nothing is out of bounds. As long as the method of acquiring the information given to the public is legal, there should be no problem with exposing the candidates’ personal life to the general public.

How would we know what kind of person we are electing if we can only see the side of them they choose to show? They will purposely mold themselves to what appeals to the people most to win their support. The candidate can have two totally different sides of himself. A glimpse into his personal life may enlighten you on his actual character. A poll conducted in 2007 showed that 9 percent of voters would be less willing to vote for a divorced candidate while 39 percent said that they would be less willing to vote for a candidate who had an extra-marital affair (Kohut). Although marriage is considered a candidate’s personal life, this could show some things. A divorce doesn’t say much due to the fact that it could have been brought on by either side or a mutual agreement was made but an extra-marital affair can show that the person is not trustworthy and cannot hold a commitment. I would not like someone with those qualities to hold any kind of office to represent myself and America to people elsewhere in the world.

When police are conducting an investigation on someone they suspect to be criminal, they must obtain a permit in order to be granted the rights to search their property otherwise it is considered illegal search and seizure and whatever evidence is seized cannot be used in trial. I believe this idea should apply to the conduct of presidential candidates during campaigns. They have the same constitutional rights as any other citizen; methods such as phone tapping, computer hacking, and illegal search and seizure for the purpose of obtaining blackmail or personal information should not be used. Recently a candidate’s ex-wife came out and said that he was not suited for presidency; she said that through the eighteen years of their marriage, she could say that his personal actions and choices did not correspond to his campaign position on the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family values. This is completely fair to use since it was a firsthand account.

In my opinion, the personal lives of candidates should not be out of bounds to be used in debates or even as attacks. Their personal lives and affairs can show a lot about their character and morals. Presidential candidates should display respectable behavior not only in front of cameras as they are to be worthy role models for many who may eventually look up to them as president of the USA. However, I do believe there should be a line drawn in obtaining such information; the method of acquiring such information should be legal.

Works Cited
Kohut, Andrew. “When Private Lives Become Public.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Web. 31 Mar. 2012. <http://www.people-press.org/2011/05/16/adultery-isnt-easily-ignored/>;.