Skip to content

OU student Freedom of Speech Contest Winner: ‘Speak up, even if your voice shakes’

“Is freedom of speech a necessity in order to have a healthy democracy?” 

Donni Steele and Emma Bowen

Michigan Representative Donni Steele presented a special tribute to OU student Emma Bowen in recognition of her winning essay in OU's inaugural Student Freedom of Speech Contest. 

That question prompted thoughtful and creative responses from dozens of students who participated in Oakland University’s inaugural Student Freedom of Speech Contest, an initiative promoting constructive dialogue on the role of free speech in American government and society.

More than 50 students submitted entries, including essays, poems, drawings and videos. They were scored based on overall effectiveness, use of examples, use of unique or personal insights, use of a genuine tone and approach, and originality. The contest was established by OU’s Center for Civic Engagement, in partnership with the Office of the President.

“This year's inaugural contest was an unqualified success,” said Dave Dulio, distinguished professor of political science and director of the Center for Civic Engagement. “We had great participation and great content. We received 55 entries from students in 29 programs and majors.”

Dulio called the contest “a great collaboration between Oakland University and members of the state legislature,” noting that Michigan Representatives Donni Steele and Brenda Carter were among those who evaluated the entries. Steele represents Michigan’s 54th House District, which includes OU’s campus. Carter, an OU alumna, represents the 53rd House District, which covers Pontiac and surrounding communities.  

“Both Rep. Steele and Rep. Carter are proponents of Oakland University and to have them involved as judges was a real treat,” Dulio added. 

Emma Bowen, a senior psychology major from Sterling Heights, was awarded the top score from the four-judge panel, which also included History Professor James Naus and Philosophy Professor Mark Navin. The winning submission received a $2,000 cash prize. Bowen also received a special tribute from the State of Michigan in recognition of her winning essay.  

“I found the prompt incredibly thought-provoking, and I appreciated that it pertained to a relevant topic,” Bowen said. “Given that the First Amendment bestows the freedom of speech upon all of us, I think this issue is inherently relevant to the lives of all American citizens.” 

From Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., Bowen’s essay cited examples of intrepid leaders who gave voice to democratic ideals in pursuit of a more just and equitable society.

“Change is an essential component of a healthy democracy achieved through the power of words,” Bowen wrote. “When given the freedom of speech, individuals can practice their autonomy and express their opinions fearlessly as they work to enact the changes they wish to see related to the direction of their government.”

In advocating for free speech, Bowen drew from many areas of knowledge, including her psychology background: “When we consciously speak to ourselves in a positive manner, we experience a boost in emotional resilience and empowerment,” she wrote.

Bowen concluded with a call to action, encouraging others to “speak up, even if your voice shakes.”

“It can be daunting at first,” she shared, “but using your voice allows you to tell meaningful stories, speak out about significant issues and effect lasting change.”

Chamber Trustees