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A New Spin on Freedom of Speech

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This column features stories from students exploring the intersection of creativity and technology through Hive Learning Network programs in NYC and Chicago.

"Don't put others down."

"Keep your heart open to surprises!"

"Speak up -- don't keep things secret if they are hurting you inside."

These were just a few of many words that graced the walls of a conference room at the West Side YMCA last Saturday. The youth-created posters, adorned with messages of hope, change and inspiration, vividly captured the spirit of the Hive NYC First Amendment Hack Jam. Nine organizations participated in the event, including the American Constitution Society, New York Civil Liberties Union, Mozilla, Global Action Project, The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project), People's Production House, Tribeca Film Institute, Common Sense Media and World Up. Each hosted an array of activities and workshops that rejuvenated the poignant foundation upon which our nation was built: freedom of speech.

The American Constitution Society set the scene for the afternoon, distributing pocket-sized pamphlets of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Gettysburg Address. Piled high beside the pamphlets was a curious mountain of black and white armbands and permanent markers, as well as a flyer detailing the case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The lawsuit was sparked in 1968 by John and Mary Beth Tinker, two high school students suspended for wearing anti-Vietnam War armbands in class. The following year, the Supreme Court upheld their right to self-expression under the First Amendment freedom of speech clause. At the Hack Jam, youth revitalized the landmark decision by embellishing the blank armbands with symbols of justice and peace. Slogans like "Love is colorblind," "No more war" and "Equal opportunity for all" graced the arms of many across the room, charging the air with a vibrant sense of unity.

That strident empowerment coursed through the veins of "Know Your Rights," a brief video showcased by the New York Civil Liberties Union on how to recognize and stop LGBTQ discrimination. The film provided viewers with the tools to combat prejudice and the confidence to stand up for their identity. The NYCLU also shed light on a different kind of discrimination through a particularly striking pamphlet entitled "Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-Policing of New York City Schools."

Authored by Elora Mukherjee, the report unravels a jarring disparity among the city's public schools, detailing the daily verbal and physical abuse that hundreds of thousands of students endure from NYPD School Safety Agents (SSAs). According to Mukherjee's research, disproportionate numbers of untrained SSAs are often assigned to low-performing institutions in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Officers accustomed to dealing with criminals on the street bring the same approach to the classroom, and as a result, students face degradation that far surpasses the bounds of a metal detector or backpack search. For many teens, Mukherjee explains, unwarranted and intrusive pat-downs by officers of the opposite sex are commonplace, as well as arrests for non-criminal offenses such as arriving late to class or walking down the hallway without a pass. The pamphlet offers essential resources for those caught in an oppressive environment, but most importantly, it raises the awareness necessary for change, prompting students to cultivate their voices and ensure that they are heard.

The LAMP also sparked innovative interplay between young adults and their surroundings, inviting youth to watch and "talk back" to several different television commercials. Using video-editing software, teens remixed Coca-Cola videos, Bratz Doll promos and a controversial Dr. Pepper advertisement touting the slogan "It's not for women." The edited commercials were regularly screened for all to see, eliciting passionate responses from the crowd.

Mozilla introduced its signature Hackasaurus X-Ray Goggles tool to the festivities, encouraging attendees to redesign websites with their own social, political, and personal messages. One participant crafted a resonant webpage illustrating the injustice of racial discrimination, proclaiming the headline "It's Just Not Right" against a background composed entirely of pairs of eyes. Global Action Project also brought social media to life through a make-your-own-meme activity, featuring photographs of students locked behind jail bars and witty captions to match with each photo.

Guest speakers took the microphone throughout the Hack Jam, sharing their challenges and triumphs in the realm of creative expression. Vee Bravo, currently at the Tribeca Film Institute and former founder of the hip-hop magazine Stress, discussed the rise and fall of his publication after being sued by New York State on alleged subway graffiti charges. Katherine Fry of The LAMP further explored the legal arena, recalling how educators initially feared that her organization's remixed commercials violated copyright law. Fry clarified the mysteries surrounding copyrights, explaining the fair use provision that protects parody artists from plagiarism allegations.

But from first hour to last, the powerhouse that kept the day running was World Up's continuous DJ mix -- and thumping beats weren't the only sounds passing through the speakers. In pairs, teens interviewed one another about pressing issues such as same-sex marriage, going "green" and bully prevention. The exchanges were recorded and woven into the music track for a uniquely immersive vibe.

By the end of the Hack Jam, youth and mentors alike carried a newfound understanding of the scope and power of freedom of speech. In a single afternoon at the YMCA, this core of human liberty shone in all of its brilliant glory, hearkening back to the vision of our founding fathers -- and moving forward into a future of infinite possibilities.