2014 Essay Contest Winners
First Place: Caroline D. Kincer, Springboro High School
Our country was founded on the belief that certain rights exist which cannot be taken away from its citizens. However, throughout the course of history these rights have been interpreted, scrutinized and dissected. For example, since September 11, 2001, the Fourth Amendment has been challenged. The critical question seems to be, where do we draw the line with how much the government can look into our private lives while still providing for national security? Many people believe that the government has the right to make decisions for the good of the country, while others argue that the government has no excuse to stick its nose where it doesn’t belong. I feel that a majority of citizens lie somewhere in the middle of the debate.
People are still adjusting to the increased security at airports: The full-body scanners, invasive pat downs, and sometimes seemingly ridiculous regulations on what you can bring on board the plane have turned the experience of flying into a somewhat unpleasant occasion. This increase in security was a direct result of an attack on our country and although inconvenient, must be viewed from both angles. On one hand, it has been said that these protocols violate the Fourth Amendment — which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. To many people these searches may seem unreasonable and unjustified but other people deem it necessary to keep this country safe. When people make the conscious decision to fly on an airplane, they are also making the decision to give up some of their rights in the interest of safety. This is a classic example of a situation where the security interests of the country take precedence over the rights of the individual.
On the other side of the debate, there are also circumstances in which individual rights take priority over society as a whole. One such situation is the government’s increased use of wiretapping and computer hacking to read emails and other personal documents. Some people feel that this invasion of privacy is justified because it can be a method of identifying terrorists and apprehending them before they have the chance to act on their intentions. However, this technique could be easily abused in a way that could hurt individuals. The information found in this way could be taken out of context or used for the wrong reasons. In short, this form of government spying is seen as a direct violation of Fourth Amendment rights — with far too many “what ifs” and exceptions to be considered a reasonable search.
There is a fine line between reasonably giving up your rights and having them taken from you in an unreasonable manner. As citizens of this country, it should be up to us to decide where that line is. I find inspiration from this statement that I came across while researching this topic and feel it sums up the situation fairly well: “The proper way to balance security and liberty is not to balance them at all; it is to insist on policies that maximize both to the extent practicable.”
Second Place: Carter Greene, Lebanon High School
As outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the principles that America was founded on were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, in modern society, the principles of life and liberty can be at odds with each other. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, filled with criminals and terrorists who misuse their liberty to take life from others. We are now faced with a crucial dilemma in our country: trying to balance individual freedom with national security.
One of the greatest leaders and Founding Fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, was an avid supporter of individual freedom, saying “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that liberty was a staple of American government, so immediately after the ratification of the Constitution they passed 10 amendments, now known as the Bill of Rights, to ensure the people’s liberty against a tyrannical government. In fact these amendments are still safeguarded from government today, and ensure the freedoms that Americans enjoy like freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc. It can be assured that all citizens will enjoy these rights, no matter the security risks they pose. For example, a person can protest against a war and as long as they are not affecting everyday business or doing something unlawful, they are legally allowed to under the First Amendment, even if it is hurting the war effort.
However, these rights are not unrestricted. The world would not be a safe place if individuals did everything that they pleased (that is why there are laws). With the advancement of technology in the past decades, the world has become more dangerous than ever. There is an essential need for the government to ensure national security; people need to be able to conduct their business as usual without having an overwhelming threat of danger. Sometimes to ensure national security, the government must suspend a portion of personal freedom. In common law today, the Supreme Court uses the “imminent lawless action” test as decided by the Supreme Court in the Brandenburg v. Ohio ruling, to determine the lawfulness of certain areas of free speech. It is vitally important to a government to establish common law and set precedents to determine how far individual rights extend in comparison with security interests.
The struggle between security interests and personal freedoms is not a black-and-white situation. There are many facts that must be taken into account, and opinions will be exceedingly different. To solve the dilemma, politicians and citizens alike will have to put their differences aside and come up with the best solution to the problem. I do not know what the solution is, but I do know that if nothing is done about it, America could become a country unprotected from terrorism, a totalitarian society with no individual rights, or possibly even both.
Third Place: Olivia B. Elter, Bishop Fenwick High School
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
A wise man made this observation years ago on the challenges a newly democratic America was facing in its future. My father attributes this quote to Captain America, but prevailing wisdom holds it to be Thomas Jefferson, founding scholar, architect, businessman, president and farmer. These roles provided Jefferson with vision of the difficulties in balancing the need of the government to ensure social order and the individual freedoms of the people.
What would Mr. Jefferson say of America 2014, where the reach of our enemies is more direct and damaging and the freedoms of our democracy are used against the United States? What type of vigilance would he endorse? Would online data mining of the most private of citizen information strike him as repugnant to the very essence of America? Times change.
One thing is for certain, he would certainly not envy the balancing of these interests of the whole versus the rights of the one, for while these interests at times are divergent, neither can truly exist without the other. United Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson put it this way: “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.” U.S. Supreme Court Case, Terminiello v. Chicago. Dealing with the rights of free speech and whether it is tolerable even if it incites riot, Justice Jackson deftly articulated the tension between the two, defining the challenge of leaders to create a cohesive relationship between those governed and the governing.
The current NSA internet/telephone monitoring program illustrates as instance where the rights of the individual become subjugate to the need for common order as a free society. How much farther can we cede our liberty in hopes of peace of mind until we cede the essence of democracy? If Big Brother can see what you say, hear, type and think, at what point does vigilance become forced compliance?
At the other end of the scale is the continuing battle over abortion, where for now, the rights of the individual hold sway over the intrusion of government. In this instance, the preservation of personal choice has prevailed over the “threat” to society.
Yet the reality of 2014 America is an ever-changing continuum, where the events of a single day can forever change the course of a nation. Enjoyment of liberty in the United States necessarily entails a responsibility to preserve it with a just conscience. Doing so is the essential task of our society necessary to preserve the union of order and liberty in the United States, to avoid the poison choice of either anarchy or totalitarianism, or worse.
While this is a task Jefferson would not envy, he would embrace it, as we must if America is to endure in a future where liberty and order are synonymous, and not mutually exclusive, for truly a house divided amongst itself cannot stand.
Words to hopefully, live by.
Third Place: Parker Henry, William Mason High School
In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We the people, then, have the job of discerning which liberties are essential and which ones must give way for the good of society. This job not only applies to those on Capitol Hill, though; students like me have played a significant role in determining the rights necessary to a free society and those that must be traded for widespread security.
When it comes to individual freedom, The First Amendment is perhaps the most influential of all those in the Bill of Rights. After all, it guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. As former U.S. Senator Arlen Spector puts it, “The First Amendment is as important today as when it was written.” However, even after two hundred years, The First Amendment is still under debate, begging the question of how much the freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly actually covers.
In some cases, it has been necessary to withhold personal liberties in order to protect the greater good. For example, in 1986, public high school student Matthew Fraser gave a speech containing sexual innuendo to six hundred of his classmates. After being suspended, Fraser sued the school district in the Supreme Court case that would become Bethel v. Fraser. The Court concluded that the education of citizenship in schools should be taught by example, and therefore it is appropriate to limit “lewd and obscene speech.” Though individual freedom is the primary basis of American values, it is relieving to know that steps have been taken to ensure an appropriate school environment.
Obviously, it is important to make sure America’s schools reflect decent values, but the First Amendment applies to all Americans — even students. In plenty of instances, young people have taken a stand and demonstrated their rights. For example, in 1965, in Des Moines, high school students John and Mary Beth Tinker decided to wear black arm bands to school as a symbolic protest to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Seeing the bands as a disruption to the classroom environment, the school district suspended the students and began the Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines. The court ruled that the arm bands were an expression of free speech and were therefore protected by the Bill of Rights. Luckily, this type of peaceful expression is exactly what the First Amendment ensures all Americans, including its youth.
In the conclusion of the Tinker v. Des Moines case, former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas said, “It can hardly be argued that students shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” At times, I may find myself insignificant in the grand political scheme, but I only need to look back at all the students who have taken a stand in school to know that I too can be an influential part of American history and the rights meant to be enjoyed by everyone.