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.

2021-22 Essay Contest

What can we post? Free speech in a digital world graphic announcing the 2021-22 essay contest.

Essay topic: “What Can We Post? Free Speech in a Digital World”

If there is a “public square” for speech in our world, it will not be found on the corner of Main Street; it will be found online. Social media platforms, video hosting sites, collaborative encyclopedias—these have become the principal sites for the open and public exchange of information, opinions, and ideologies. And yet, these sites are far from truly and entirely free. As private companies, social media giants like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube decide for themselves what speech is or is not permissible on their platforms. And so, these online platforms have become a strange hybrid—legally private companies functioning as our de facto public square. How, then, should we think about free speech in these digital spaces?

What kind of speech, if any, should be limited? Are there certain circumstances where speech can be harmful or dangerous? How do we think about advertising, libel and slander, pornography, images or videos of death and violence, biased news reporting, false scientific claims during a pandemic, bigotry, and hate-speech? Who decides what is dangerous content, and using what criteria? Do these private platforms have a responsibility to monitor or take down harmful content? Conversely, as the de facto public square, do they have an ethical responsibility to broadly uphold free speech? More complicated still, these platforms have a global reach; what is understood as acceptable satire in one part of the world, might be unacceptable slander or an instigation of violence in another.

In light of these manifold complexities, in this essay students should address the following question: What ethical principles should guide our legal and moral decisions about who limits free speech, how they limit it, and what speech is limited?

The submission deadline has passed.

Contest rules

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.

Past Essay Contest Winners

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

Contact Atkins Center for Ethics

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

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