2023 CFOG First Amendment Essay Contest Winners Announced

May 16, 2023
Contact: Matthew Kauffman
CFOG Essay Contest Chair
Email CFOG Essay Contest

Students in Greenwich, West Hartford, West Haven and Thompson win top prizes in First Amendment essay contest;
Honorable mentions in Greenwich, Woodbury, Rocky Hill and Bethel.

Aubrey Niederhoffer, a junior at Greenwich High School, has won the first prize of $1,000 in the 2023 Connecticut Foundation for Open Government’s Forrest Palmer High School Essay Contest.

His essay addressed the dramatic rise in books being pulled from school library shelves, and argued that book-review policies that promote civil and respectful debate can assure the availability of reading material that is age-appropriate without marginalizing minority viewpoints.

“We should recognize the recent controversies over the books included in our public school curriculums and libraries for what they are: valuable debates over what moral values our communities should accept,” he wrote. “We should engage with these debates, not dismiss them as dangerous. No matter how passionate our beliefs, we should not let our efforts to promote what we believe is best for our children compromise our faith in civil discourse and the democratic process.”

Aubrey’s essay was selected from among a record 73 entries from students attending 18 high schools across the state. Students were asked to write essays addressing one of three timely First Amendment issues: book bans in schools, hate speech on campuses, and misinformation on social media.

A second prize of $500 was won by Yue Huang, a sophomore at Kingswood Oxford school in West Hartford. He also wrote about book bans, arguing that restricting books on controversial topics serves only to cover up important social issues.

“When teenagers only read ‘clean’ white stories, they are denied a sense of the world’s vastness, and their place within it is erased,” he wrote. “I understand this all too well. At my school, I rarely see others who look like me. In books, however, I can see not only reflections of my own teenage experience but universal truths we all should wrestle with.”
Two students – Dana Davis and Abbie O’Brien – were award third-place honors, with a prize of $300. Dana, a junior at West Haven High School, wrote that while the airing of an anti-transgender documentary at Central Connecticut State University may have been offensive to many on campus, the university was correct in concluding that the conservative group Turning Point USA had a First Amendment right to show the film.

“Prohibiting the watch party would have violated the Turning Point USA students’ freedom of expression by censoring their opinions,” she wrote. “The documentary did not incite any imminent lawless action, contain libel or slander, nor promote sedition. Therefore, airing the documentary did not classify as unprotected speech.”

Abbie, a senior at Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson, wrote that books are too often pulled from school shelves for arbitrary and nonsensical reasons.

“It is imperative that a primary purpose of books is kept in mind; they provide an outlet for creative expression,” she wrote. “Individuals craft their writings to reflect their values, experiences, and dreams, and – although their perspectives may differ from others – their work should not be condemned without significant thought.”

Honorable mention prizes of $50 were awarded to Gabriella Berardis of Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, Connor Hone of Greenwich High School, Lia Kantor of Bethel High School and Hannah Saccente of Rocky Hill High School.

The essay contest is named in honor of the late Forrest Palmer, former editor and publisher of the News-Times in Danbury, who began the contest in 2000 when he was president of CFOG’s board of directors.

The Connecticut Foundation for Open Government is a nonprofit educational organization founded in 1992 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.