WCU festival shows students significance of First Amendment

The flyers all over WCU’s campus advertising a free lunch have probably caught your eye in the past few weeks.

These flyers advertised a new annual event hosted by WCU’s Student Media groups called the First Amendment Free Food Festival that took place on April 8. The festival was intended to show students a glimpse of what life might be like while living under a dictatorship. The festival itself had its own dictator and many, many rules that were a requirement to obey.

As one entered the UC Grandroom, they were asked to sign a contract that eliminated any First Amendment rights they otherwise may have had. Each guest was made an honorary member of “The People’s Republic of Cullowhee” which called for giving up the freedom of speaking freely, practicing any religion, and just making any choices for oneself.

Three tables were set up displaying three different free lunches. The color of the ticket one received at random as they entered was the color of the sticker on the lunch they would receive. Some lunches resembled fine dining, while the other two were served in boxes, one from Einstein Brothers Bagels, and the other had no name. Drinks were also not an option and were assigned as part of the lunch ticket you received.

Students seemed a bit outraged at first that they could not have the “fancy” lunch or the drink of their choice. Some rolled their eyes and sighed, while others went so far as to complain to the people in charge. Students were quickly reminded that they had no rights, which for some may have been an eye opener.

“I didn’t like being told what to eat and drink but it was free,” said WCU Junior Andy Miller, who requested a drink other than Pepsi. “I thought it was very well done and convincing. It was harder than people might think to not be able to use the First Amendment.”

Several staged protests took place as a means to demonstrate the severity of not having any rights. Random (but staged) guests were asked to move tables because someone didn’t like them and were thrown out for standing up for their selves. Other (staged) guests were kicked out of the Republic for taking unauthorized photography and for trying to pray before eating.

“To me, this program was not only about ‘rights’ but it was also about privilege and how we exercise those privileges,” said Yolani Gonell , Associate Director of Programs for Intercultural Affairs, who participated in the festival. “I was surprised by my discomfort when students were removed from the room – mainly because no one said anything or attempted to help. It was a creative way to stimulate dialogue.”

As the event became rowdy with protests, students in attendance were shown how much of a struggle life would be without the freedoms they take for granted. It was shocking to no longer have freedoms, which shows that WCU students underestimate the importance of the First Amendment.

Dr. Todd Collins, a professor in WCU’s Political Science department, feels the First Amendment is vital.

“The First Amendment protects some of the basic civil liberties that are needed to ensure a free society,” said Collins. “There is a reason it is the First Amendment – it is because we value these things so highly and that so much of a free society is based upon these few words.”

WCU’s Student Media groups have wanted to stage a First Amendment Free Food festival for a couple years. The dream became a reality this spring in part to the Western Carolinian receiving a Louis Ingelhart First Amendment Award Grant from the College Media Association last fall, which helped to cover costs of the event.

When asked how students may have been impacted, Miller replied, “hopefully more students better understand the importance of laws and the constitution and that we are guaranteed certain rights that really make this country a good place to be.”