Students win trip to U.S. Supreme Court as part of Institute essay contest

St. Olaf students (from left) Emily Behling ’21, Brigid Miller ’21, Jacob Wilde ’21, Carter Mickelson ’20, and Christoph Hodel ’20 are the winners of the Institute for Freedom and Community’s recent essay contest.

St. Olaf College students never shy away from a good debate — and this spring, five students who won the Institute for Freedom and Community’s recent essay contest will have the opportunity to visit the U.S. Supreme Court and observe a round of oral arguments.

The winning students — Emily Behling ’21, Christoph Hodel ’20, Carter Mickelson ’20, Brigid Miller ’21, and Jacob Wilde ’21 — will receive all-expense-paid, multi-day trip to Washington, D.C., in March. They will tour museums and monuments, walk the halls of Congress, and take part in a specially arranged visit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

To win, these Oles wrote essays responding to the following question: “Does the First Amendment protection of free speech also include protection of academic freedom? Why or why not?” The question ties into the Institute for Freedom and Community’s fall theme, Academic Freedom: Its Meaning and Limits.

During the fall, the Institute for Freedom and Community hosted two events on campus as part of the theme. Academic and author Joanna Williams spoke on the topic Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity. Danielle Allen of Harvard University and Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University participated in A Dialogue on Academic Freedom.

The Institute for Freedom and Community, which was established at St. Olaf in 2015, encourages free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues. It provides a program of academic coursework, public lectures and debates, scholarly and undergraduate research, and internships for students.

It sponsored an essay contest last year centered on important political figures and controversies. The winners of that contest won an all-expenses paid trip to Chicago that included tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton.

The winning entries for this year’s essay contest, which was open to first-year and second-year students, are impressive.

Each of the five essays exemplifies the Institute for Freedom and Community’s goal: discourse that is respectful and open, but also thought-provoking and challenging.

Behling combines eloquence with astute argumentation when explaining that “while academic freedom and the First Amendment are fundamentally similar, they are also slightly different. The difficulty in distinguishing these two notions lies in their definitions: there is no established precedent for academic freedom and therefore no perfect definition. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech includes protection of academic freedom to a limited extent, owing to teachers’ unique position in society.”

Wilde writes that “the First Amendment right of free speech is often cited as academic freedom’s main protector, but in reality that is not the case. Because court decisions have been both vague and contradictory, many fail to realize that current legal trends point towards the free market as the main source of academic freedom.”

Miller makes an equally powerful assertion: “Through the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment, it is evident that academic freedom is a constitutionally protected right, but it only applies to employees in public settings.”

Mickelson argues that “the converse of academic freedom is censorship. While censorship is often viewed as a form of protection, such as censoring curse words on television shows, censorship in the academic field is of great danger. New ideas gain traction because they undermine the status quo.”

Hodel contends that “to protect academic freedom, universities must go far beyond the First Amendment values to uphold and encourage a mindset of openness, critical thinking, and empathy in addition to allowing freedom of expression.”

Each of the five essays exemplifies the Institute for Freedom and Community’s goal: discourse that is respectful and open, but also thought-provoking and challenging.