The Atkins Center for Ethics at Carlow University sponsors an annual essay contest for high school students. Essay topics focus on an issue of ethical concern for our country and the world.

Essay topic: “How Should We Think About “Cyberbullying or Freedom of Speech? Trolling or expressing an unpopular opinion? Does it contribute to unsafe situations in school?”

With rapid advances in technology and the growth of social media platforms, more people are using social media to express their thoughts, ideas, and personal stories. According to a recent study by Forbes, it is estimated that 4.9 billion people around the world use social media and that number is expected to increase significantly by 2027.

In a world where the internet and social media play a significant role in our daily lives, the concept of freedom of speech has taken on new dimensions and challenges. There are countless ethical questions. For example, how should we ethically think about online chatter that targets an individual or certain groups of people? Is it free speech or bullying? Does free speech or bullying lead to increased school conflict and violence? If so, what can be done to stop incidents from happening? Should there be limits or consequences for damaging or hateful comments made about an individual or individuals on social media? Should there be policies or laws that govern social media comments or content that led to unsafe situations? You decide!

In this essay, you should address the following questions: What ethical principles should guide decision-making to determine if social media comments are considered freedom of speech or cyberbullying? Who gets to decide the laws, policies, or consequences?

As you consider this prompt, here are some additional considerations that will help you to start thinking through all the dimensions:

  • What is freedom of speech, and why is it important in a democratic society?
  • How does freedom of speech apply to online platforms and social media?
  • Define cyberbullying and provide examples of its various forms.
  • Analyze the potential consequences of cyberbullying on individuals and communities.
  • Discuss the legal and ethical implications of freedom of speech in the context of online communication.
  • Explore the role of digital citizenship in promoting responsible online behavior.
  • Share your personal thoughts on the boundaries of freedom of speech and the importance of combatting cyberbullying.

You may use real-life examples, case studies, and relevant statistics to support your arguments. Consider the impact of these issues on your own life and the lives of your peers. Remember to cite your sources and present a well-reasoned perspective. 

The essay contest is open to all students enrolled in grades 11 or 12.

  • Essay must be 800-1200 words in length, not including citations & bibliography
  • Student must respond to the topic questions in an articulate, clear & organized manner
  • Essay must be the independent work of the student
  • Essay must be submitted as a PDF or Microsoft Word document

Essays will be judged on the basis of:

  • a thorough and well-organized response to the prompt
  • the ability to explore and discuss the ideas and ethical concepts that support his/her position

No particular ethical perspective will be imposed on the entrants. Students are encouraged to express themselves freely.

Judging will be conducted in two stages (1) initial screening of submissions that all rules are met and selecting the top 20 essays, (2) judging the top 20 essays by a committee of Carlow faculty members and members of the Atkins Center for Ethics advisory board.

A first, second and third place winner are awarded cash prizes. Prizes will be awarded by the committee solely on the basis of merit. No additional commitment is required.

2022-23, Topic: “How Should We Think About Thinking Machines? The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence”

  • Nathaniel Sutton, Bishop Guilfoyle High School, class of 2024
  • Elena Eiss, Pittsburgh CAPA High School, class of 2024
  • Helen Mao, North Allegheny Senior High School, class of 2024

2021-22, Topic: “What Can We Post? Free Speech in a Digital World”

  • Matthew Purcell, Avonworth High School, class of 2023
  • Leah Kornbau, Brookville Area Junior-Senior High School, class of 2022
  • Rohini Pillai, Avonworth High School, class of 2023

2020-21, Topic: “Who Goes First? Making Hard Decisions in an Unequal World”

  • Geina Shaker, Greater Latrobe High School, class of 2022
  • Isaac Krom, Greater Latrobe High School, class of 2022
  • Abigail Hakas, Homeschooled, class of 2021

For information on this year’s essay contest or general questions, contact us! 

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