Dan O’Hanlon Essay Competition

  • First Prize: $1,000
  • Second Prize: $500

The 2020 Essay

This year’s essay prompt asks the writer to consider the role of protest in the political and constitutional discourse of the United States, using an historically significant protest movement to assess a protest movement of today while considering  the following question:

Does civic duty sometimes demand civil disobedience?

You should discuss the constitutional and/or legal impact of the historical protest movement you choose, assessing how a protest movement of today aligns with the American Creed described below, and identifying constitutional and/or legal changes today’s movement should pursue in order to achieve its goals.

The winning essay will be well-supported, will discuss the broader issue of civic responsibility, and will demonstrate an understanding of the differences between legal protest, civil disobedience, radical protest, and revolution. An excellent discussion of these terms can be found at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/civil-disobedience/.


The United States of America was born out of protests against British rule that did not allow American colonists a voice in Parliament, yet taxed those colonists and imposed rules to govern their behavior.  In 1776, the American rebels, now considered the founders of our country, approved a “Declaration of Independence” that proclaimed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

This statement, written by Thomas Jefferson and often called the “American Creed,”  has been relied upon as a shared ethic to support expansions of civil rights throughout American history. Despite the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, however, the U.S. Constitution drafted in the summer of 1787 did not contemplate or establish a government that treated all people equally. The original Constitution protected slavery, and was amended to outlaw it only after a Civil War. It left decisions regarding who would have the right to vote to the states, and recognized no role for women in the political life of the country.

Indeed, the history of the United States has been characterized by a long struggle to achieve political and other forms of equality and equity for people of every race, gender, and background. And — as  the protest movements now going on clearly indicate — the struggle to live up to the “American Creed” articulated in the Declaration’s preamble continues to this day.

Many advances toward equity and equality in this country — including civil rights and voting rights for African Americans and women — have followed protest movements. Now, in the summer of 2020, the news is filled with stories of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and many others). This and other movements demand changes in our laws, including criminal justice reform, economic justice to address income inequality, environmental justice, and attention to climate change.

As you consider the past protest movement you choose to explore, focus on whether it was successful and what it achieved, and whether civil disobedience was a critical part of that movement. Then choose a protest movement of today, focus on what its constitutional and legal goals should be, and what it might take for that movement to succeed. Are there parts of the Constitution, as amended, that should be pointed to as supporting the goals of the movement you choose? Is there an amendment that should be added to the Constitution, and/or a law that does not already exist?  If so, suggest what the amendment or law should say.

The Successful Essay

Your entry should reflect your own research and your conclusions should be based on historical as well as present-day perspectives. It is expected that you will cite sources to bolster your arguments, including peer-reviewed and scholarly sources. Your research should reflect a high degree of information literacy. You must be sure that all of your sources are properly cited and thus can be located and verified by the contest judges.

2020 Winners

History of the Contest

The Dan O’Hanlon Essay Competition was established in 2009, after an anonymous donor requested that Marshall find a way to promote scholarship related to the Constitution and simultaneously honor retired Cabell County Circuit Court Judge Dan O’Hanlon. Prior to his long career on the bench, Judge O’Hanlon served as professor and chair of the Marshall University Criminal Justice Department. In 2007, he was selected by the West Virginia Justice Association as Judge of the Year.

Previous Winners








  • Joshua Thompson (1st) – “The Individual’s Voice in Democracy: The Right to Vote”
  • Lesley Cruickshank (2nd) – “Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act: Preclearance and Public Policy”


  • W. Austin Smith II (1st) – “Constitutional Interpretation”
  • Justin Setliff (2nd) – “The View of an Originalist”


  • Aaron Preece – “The Right to Free Speech in an Academic Setting”


  • Joshua Cottle — “Protecting the Constitution: Balancing the Rights of the People and the Union”


Patricia Proctor, J.D.
Pre-Law Advisor
Old Main, Room 314