2024 CFOG First Amendment Essay Contest Winners Announced

Hannah Saccente, a senior at Rocky Hill High School, has won the first prize of $1,000 in the 2024 Connecticut Foundation for Open Government’s Forrest Palmer High School Essay Contest.

Her essay addressed a controversy at a public elementary school in Lebanon, Conn., where the provocatively named “After School Satan Club” was created as a counter to the Bible-based “Good News Club” that meets at the school.

Under the First Amendment, Hannah wrote, the After School Satan Club, which promotes scientific inquiry, must be given the same right of access as a religiously oriented club. “Schools must choose to either allow all interest-based clubs to meet, or none at all,” she wrote. “If we expect religious freedom for ourselves, we must extend the same right to all groups, even those we disagree with.”

Hannah’s essay was selected from among a record 86 entries from students attending 14 high schools across the state. Students were asked to write essays addressing one of three timely First Amendment issues: Religious and non-religious groups in public schools, restrictions on books in public libraries, and political protests at UConn.

A second prize of $500 was won by Pranati Sathyagal, a junior at Ridgefield High School. Pranati wrote about the “spirit rock” at the UConn campus in Storrs, a large boulder often painted by students that has become a flashpoint for those with differing opinions on the Israel-Hamas war. Pranati argued against the position advocated by some at the school that the rock should be removed or relocated to ease tensions on a volatile issue.

“Trying to promote a culture of constant harmony among campus students by removing the rock, while appearing an idyllic solution, prevents the expression of students’ individual ideas. Conflict and disagreement are natural precursors to progress and cannot be avoided if the university supports building a generation of changemakers,” Pranati wrote. “In maintaining the location of the spirit rock, UConn will not only be protecting the freedom of speech of its students, but also allowing them to become passionate, well-informed, global citizens.”

Tavishi Choudhary, a junior at Greenwich High School, was awarded third-place honors, with a prize of $300. Tavishi also wrote about the UConn spirit rock, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case, declared that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

“Public spaces, especially educational institutions like UConn, play an essential role in promoting the unrestricted sharing of ideas and beliefs,” Tavish wrote “ ‘Spirit rocks,’ at the heart of the issue at UConn, symbolizes students’ right to express their views, even when controversial.”

Honorable mention prizes of $50 were awarded to Armaan Shrivastav of Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Emily Xiche Bai of Avon High School;, Kyle Walker of West Haven High School, Lucia Thomas of Ridgefield High School, and Shafi Reilly of Greenwich 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 (www.ctfog.org) 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 free-speech and other First Amendment issues.