Student competition raises awareness of First Amendment on campus

By Mary Beth Versaci

As part of its ongoing series to increase campus understanding of the First Amendment, the University has introduced a competition designed to allow students the opportunity to express their interpretation of the amendment.

The series, titled “Campus Uncensored,” began in fall 2008 and has featured various speakers, such as Robert McChesney, research professor for the Institute of Communications Research, throughout the year. It will culminate with the student competition on the First Amendment, which ends Friday.

The idea for the program came from a number of incidences at the University that specifically involved First Amendment rights, including student protests over the retirement of Chief Illiniwek and the sorority and fraternity “Tacos and Tequila” event in fall 2007, said Brian Farber, director of student conflict resolution and co-chair of the Campus Uncensored committee.

According to the student affairs Web site, undergraduate, graduate and professional students are welcome to submit entries into the competition in the form of “essay, digital video, painting, short story, poetry, plays or music.”

The Web site also lists sample themes for the entries, including “understanding of the First Amendment, role of the First Amendment in today’s society, role of the First Amendment in the University and examples of representations of First Amendment cases.”

Farber said the program was created to allow people to discuss their thoughts on how the amendment is applied at the University.

“Whether people realize it or not, the First Amendment is very applicable to our everyday lives,” said Jaclyn O’Day, student body president and co-chair of the Campus Uncensored committee. “It’s a privilege to have First Amendment rights, and not everyone in the world has that.”

“We’re building dialogue and getting students to really think about First Amendment rights,” O’Day said. “They need to understand their student rights and appreciate them.”

However, Marley Nelson, graduate student in Law, said she does not believe a competition is the best way to educate students about the First Amendment.

“I don’t think a competition would be a good idea,” Nelson said. “If someone writes a song, I’m not sure if it would help them understand the First Amendment. It’s helpful to promote dialogue, but I’m not sure if it promotes correct understanding of what the First Amendment is and what it does.”

Though Nelson said she dislikes the program, she said she thinks having a series of speakers can help educate the student body about the First Amendment.

Awards for winners include one overall prize of $500, two graduate/professional student prizes of $250, two undergraduate prizes of $250 and $100 cash prizes for honorable mentions.