UC Berkeley essay contest asks: ‘Is free speech free?’

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Through the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Essay Prize, UC Berkeley students and staff can win up to $1,500 for answering, in 500 words or less, one question: “Is free speech free?”

Since 1971, the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Essay Prize has posed philosophical, abstract and socially relevant questions to the campus community in exchange for $100 to $1,500 prizes. The amount contest winners receive depends on how many winners the prize committee selects.

This year’s prompt is due Dec. 1, and comes in the wake of UC Berkeley’s canceled “Free Speech Week” amid active and heated discussions about the university’s free speech policy.

This year’s prompt is not the first to integrate campus free speech conflicts. In 1971, the prompt was “Free Speech Movement, People’s Park, and Cambodia: Whither the Direction and What Are the Functions of the Contemporary University?” Past prompts have ranged from the intellectually abstract, such as “Where Should Humankind Go Next?” in 1978-79, to the more bizarre “Hair Shirts” in 1986-87.

In a letter to the UC Regents, prize founder Eric Hoffer, a writer, philosopher and campus adjunct professor in the 1960s, outlined his requirements for the contest winners as excellent writing and “originality of thought.”

Hoffer also valued brevity in the responses. In another letter regarding the prize conditions, Hoffer wrote, “Wordiness is a sickness of American writing. Too many words dilute and blur ideas.”

Michele Rabkin, associate director of Berkeley Connect, came in second place for last year’s top prizes for her response to the prompt “Advice to the new chancellor.” Rabkin said that the contest helps connect campus’s broader intellectual community by posing provocative questions to both students and staff.

Rabkin said she enjoys prompts that she can relate to personally, and appreciates the relevance of this year’s prompt.

“I’m thinking about my own experience with free speech week,” Rabkin said of this year’s prompt. “When it brings to mind a personal experience, I get excited.”

Campus integrative biology professor Noah Whiteman also won last year’s top prize for a poem. Whiteman encouraged those entering the contest to be creative.

“This is an opportunity to do something new,” Whiteman said in an email. “To write in a way they haven’t written before, to write about the future, not the past, to dream.”

Contact Sam Levin at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @SamJLevin.