How much is a free meal worth to you? Diners keep First Amendment on their minds during lunch

Elon University hosted the First Amendment Free Food Festival Sept. 26, which visualized Americans' rights in a fun way.

Sit down, be quiet and eat.

Elon students, faculty and staff were offered a free lunch Sept. 26 in the Snow Family Grand Atrium in Schar Hall in exchange for the steep price of their First Amendment rights.

Marjorie Anne Foster '19 protests her loss of free speech during the First Amendment Free Food Festival Sept. 26 at Elon University. Kenneth Brown '19 and Selina Guevara '19 (in black T-shirts on left) look on before removing Foster from the dining area.
More than 100 people were willing to make the deal during the First Amendment Free Food Festival, which featured students acting as protesters, the media and religious figures – all of whom attempted to exercise their rights to speak out, report the 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, reinforcing the importance of continuing to inform citizens of the 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.

“Sometimes the First Amendment seems only like words on a page, so we use this event to try to bring it to life,” said Director of Student Media Colin Donohue ’05, who organized the event. “Sadly, it’s easy to overlook the importance of the amendment. And in today’s charged political climate, it’s especially important to explore our rights.”

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 Rochelle Ford, who loudly expressed her disappointment that so many people were willing to trade their First Amendment rights for a free burger. Fellow protesters Marjorie Anne Foster ’19, Madison Hays ’22 and Emily Holland ’22 led chants decrying the loss of diners’ rights.

Alex Roat ’20 and Sam Porozok ’22 attempted to cover the event for Elon News Network before being forcibly removed. And Hannah Garcia ’22 and Joshua Grossman ’20 proselytized and offered blessings at their own peril.

Keeping everyone in line inside The People’s Republic of Elon were Dictator for the Day and SGA President Kenneth Brown ’19 and police officers Cammie Behnke ’19, Selina Guevara ’19, Jeremy Palladino ’22 and Kenny Harvey ’22.

Alex Roat '20 (left in red shirt) tries to interview School of Communications Dean Rochelle Ford (right) while Kenneth Brown '19 tries to stop her.
“This is an event everyone should go to because it transcends the School of Communications and affects everybody, whether they realize it or not,” Behnke said. “An event like this really makes you aware of what America would become if we placed restrictions on First Amendment rights. And we should all be constantly aware of those rights so that we’re able to use them in ways that serve our communities.”

Donohue, an instructor in the School of Communications and the faculty director of the Oaks 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, Oaks Neighborhood, Danieley Center Neighborhood, Historic Neighborhood, Council on Civic Engagement, and 1 For All, which is a national nonpartisan program designed to build understanding and support for the First Amendment.

“I think the First Amendment Free Food Festival is important because it shows people what it would be like to have their First Amendment rights taken away,” Roat said. “Our First Amendment rights are the cornerstone of American democracy and we take them for granted, but this event helps students to realize how important those rights are to our everyday lives, and what our lives would be like if they were denied.”