First Amendment or a free burger? Food festival helps community ponder constitutional rights

Elon University hosted the First Amendment Free Food Festival March 14 to celebrate the rights outlined in the First Amendment.

A free lunch was available March 14 in the Snow Family Grand Atrium in Schar Hall for anyone who wanted it — so long as they signed away their First Amendment rights.

Meg Malone '19 shuts down Dean Paul Parsons' protest during the First Amendment Free Food Festival.
The First Amendment Free Food Festival featured students, staff and faculty acting as protesters, the media and religious figures – all of whom attempted to exercise their rights to speak out, report news and pray. But in the center of the commotion were student “police,” who directed people into the eating area, commanded topics of conversation, prohibited coverage of the event and otherwise ensured no one enjoyed freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly or petition – the five rights outlined in the First Amendment.

But not many Americans can name those five, making now as good a time as any to dive into their First Amendment privileges. According to a 2017 survey from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, 37 percent of Americans can’t name one of the five rights afforded to them by the First Amendment. And only 48 percent could remember freedom of speech.

“The event offered students the opportunity both to learn about why the First Amendment matters but also to watch those rights played out visually,” said Colin Donohue, who organized the event. “They could see what it might look like if our First Amendment freedoms were stripped from us.”

Elizabeth Bilka '18 tells Communications Associate Professor Anthony Hatcher to sign away his First Amendment rights in order to get his lunch.
As people walked into the atrium, signs warned them that they were entering The People’s Republic of Elon, where the motto is: “Tread carefully and keep your mouth shut.”

Among the people who wouldn’t stay quiet, though, were Communications Dean Paul Parsons, who started a chant of “Free speech, not free food” with his fellow protesters, students Alexa Baer ’19, Bella Saputo ’19 and Marjorie Anne Foster ’19.

Paul LeBlanc ’18 and Stephanie Hays ’18 attempted to cover the event for Elon News Network before being forcibly removed. And Communications Associate Professor Anthony Hatcher and Multifaith and Intern Coordinator Carrie Seigler proselytized and offered blessings at their own peril.

Keeping everyone in line inside The People’s Republic of Elon were Dictator for the Day Morgan Bodenarain ’18 and police officers Meg Malone ’19, Elizabeth Bilka ’18 and Avik Bhargave ’19.

Once students left the event, they had the opportunity to discuss the First Amendment and learn about its history with Brooke Barnett, associate provost for academic and inclusive excellence, and Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and instructor of communications.

“Despite the laughter and the familiarity among students and professors, those involved took their assignments seriously, especially the student police who enforced the rules,” Hatcher said. “Signing our rights away reinforced the notion that Americans are fortunate to be able to express themselves in ways many around the world can’t.”

Communications Dean Paul Parsons holds a protest sign that says, "I can't believe I have to protest this."
Donohue, the director of student media in the School of Communications and the faculty director of the Danieley Center Neighborhood, brought the event to campus but didn’t originate it. It’s the brainchild of Michael Koretzky, who started it in 2006 at Florida Atlantic University with funds from the Society of Professional Journalists. Elon’s version of the First Amendment Free Food Festival was sponsored by the School of Communications and the Danieley Center, Colonnades and Historic neighborhoods.

“I think the event really brought home why the First Amendment is so valuable,” Bilka said. “As a journalism major, I spend a lot of time in classes talking about the First Amendment and reading the First Amendment. This event really showed me, and hopefully other students, that our country would be radically different without it. My hope is that students are more appreciative of the First Amendment and all of the protections it offers after seeing people escorted out for exercising these basic freedoms.”