2020 CFOG Essay Contest News Release

May 15, 2020
Contact: Mary Connolly
CFOG Essay Contest Chair
Email CFOG Essay Contest


Amity Regional, Avon, West Haven win top prizes;
honorable mentions also to East Lyme and Taft

Wendy Zhang, a junior at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, has won the first prize of $1,000 in the 2020 Connecticut Foundation for Open Government’s Forrest Palmer High School Essay Contest.

She wrote about an incident at the University of Connecticut last fall that involved the arrest of two students who were yelling the N-word on campus but did not direct the comments at a specific individual.

“Allowing vague laws to prosecute offensive speech gives the government excessive power and does not address the real issues at hand: systemic racism and ignorance,” she wrote. “Censoring offensive speech does not mean that students and people alike will be sensitive to other’s opinions. Rather, it’s clear that racism, sexism, and discrimination aren’t alleviated by hiding issues, but rather with open discussion, where people are able to freely speak under their First Amendment rights.”

The contest is named in honor of the late Forrest Palmer, who began the contest in 2000 when he was president of CFOG’s board of directors. CFOG is a nonprofit educational organization founded on the principle that open, transparent government is in the public interest. CFOG sponsors the essay contest to encourage thought and debate among students on public and freedom of information issues.

A second prize of $500 was won by James Vicente, a junior at Avon High School. He wrote about the challenges faced by student publications that tackle controversial topics. The instinct of local school officials is often censorship to avoid criticism.

“When schools train their students to behave exactly the same, only talk about certain approved subjects, and conform, students never learn how to be proactive, creative or have their voices heard effectively,” he wrote. “There must be a safe environment for these students to safely speak in.”

A third prize of $300 was won by Alana Orecchio, a junior at West Haven High School, who wrote about the Killingly Board of Education decision to keep the “Redmen” mascot for Killingly High School although it was previously rejected as a racist symbol.

“Overall, there is no legal obligation for the Killingly Board of Education to change its mascot under the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech; however, as some students, teachers, and Native American groups in Killingly believe, the school board possesses a moral obligation to respect those tribes that were abused,” she wrote. “Changing the ‘Redmen’ mascot would fulfill this moral obligation.”

Honorable mention awards of $50 went to Colin Hamilton and Alissa Mills of Avon High School; Daniel Liu of Amity Regional High School; Ethan Stewart of East Lyme High School; Yarid Tyran of West Haven High School; and Andrew Yang of Taft School in Watertown.

Students were asked to write essays on one of three topics:

  1. In October 2019, two University of Connecticut students were charged under a state hate-crime law for yelling the N-word on campus. The comments were not directed at a specific individual. Should these students have been charged with a criminal offense? Does the First Amendment protect offensive speech?
  1. The Killingly Board of Education has voted to keep the “Redmen” mascot for Killingly High School although it was previously rejected as a racist symbol. Students, teachers and Native American groups had urged the board not to do this. In Killingly, the dispute became an election issue last fall. Is it a First Amendment issue?
  1. In most communities, student publications are subject to approval by faculty advisers, school principals and school superintendents. When a subject is controversial, their instinct is often toward censorship to avoid criticism. Should Connecticut have a state law that protects student free expression?

Judges for the contest were Janet Manko, Martin Margulies, Tom Crider, Lyn Hottes, Eileen FitzGerald and Mary Connolly.