2023 Free Expression Essay Competition Winners

PEN America is excited to announce the winners of our second annual Free Expression Essay Competition

Dozens of high school and college students wrote in to tell us what free expression means to them, addressing a wide range of topics like educational freedoms, civil discourse, the history of free speech, and personal experiences with censorship. Student writers took to the page to explore challenging questions surrounding free expression, and put forth strong arguments for human rights and against censorship.

Congratulations to our winning students!

High School Division:

1st place: Kiran Yeh – $1,500 prize

Kiran Yeh explained how capitalism curtails free speech in the media in her essay, “The Paradox of the Marketplace of Ideas.”

2nd place: Laura Kopec – $1,000 prize

Laura Kopec described her activism against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and how it relates to her protests against school book bans in her essay, “Fighting for Freedoms in Florida.” 

3rd place: Alex Lunsford – $500 prize

Alex Lunsford mixed poetic metaphors and descriptions of the transphobia he has encountered to define the importance of free speech in “What Free Expression Means to Me.”

College Division:

1st place: Meril Mousoom – $2,000 prize

Meril Mousoom employed their experiences with wearing the hijab and viewing a controversial art exhibit about Iranian women to argue for the importance of free speech despite its potential to offend in “Art and Religion: A Muslim’s Story.”

2nd place: Eugenia Yuan – $1,500 prize

Eugenia Yuan shared how her experiences having her writing censored by the Chinese government have led her to fight against book bans in the United States in “The Impact of Censorship on a Personal Level and the Need for Cross-Cultural Collaboration in Free Speech Activism.”

3rd place: Jenna Curia – $1,000 prize

Jenna Curia used her experiences with home schooling to show how access to public education is a free speech issue and to illustrate the importance of public libraries in “Free Expression and Family Structure: How Education Encourages Freedom of Thought, Choice, and Speech.”

Special thanks to our judges, which included PEN America’s Free Expression Programs staff, and writers Frederick Joseph, Kyle Lukoff, Jia Tolentino, and Tara Westover. 

We also thank all who participated in this year’s essay competition, and encourage high school and college students to stay tuned for an announcement of the next competition cycle; and, above all, to stay passionate about the human right to free expression in a world that increasingly seeks to shut expression down. 

PEN America is deeply grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for its generous support of PEN America’s National Student Free Expression Essay Competition

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