It was a beautiful day to sign away your rights.
The sun shone through the flowering trees on the quad at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, as students willingly gave up their First Amendment rights for free pizza in the sunshine.
It’s an annual exercise, establishing “the Kingdom of the Socialist States of the People’s Republic of Mass Communica” on the patio outside Dunham Hall for two hours. Cosponsored by the mass communications department, the student newspaper Alestle, College Media Advisers and the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, the Kingdom offers its citizens free pizza and soda in exchange for giving up your First Amendment rights.
Alestle advisor Tammy Merrett ruled the Kingdom with her bubble wand-packing Goon Squad, making sure no one exercised freedom of religion, speech, the press or any other rights that had been signed away. Alestle staffers attempting to distribute the student newspaper were shooed away, as were “counter-protesters” warning the passing students what they would lose if they took the deal.
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“You look too comfortable there,” Merrett told a lone student, forcing him to sit with another group. “Now, all of you discuss the decline of daytime soap operas, which I’m sure is a subject you know a lot about.”
When Ian Caveny entered the Kingdom with a friend, they forced him to sit with someone he didn’t know, as he had no right to free association. Caveny and his new companion were ordered to talk about drag queens, and while that was okay at first, he said, he soon received a phone call from his workplace.
Problem: Caveny works for a Christian organization. Then he realized in order to take the call, he would have to leave the Kingdom and its free pizza. His job was illegal in a place without the First Amendment.
I attended the festival in my role as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists, which meant I had to stay outside the yellow-taped boundaries of the Kingdom. My job also is illegal, so interviewing students as they submitted to the new rules would mean facing the bubble wands of the Goon Squad.
But it is part of our mission at SPJ to remind everyone — especially those whose careers rely on communication — of the importance of freedoms we have enjoyed for so long that they are easily taken for granted.
Indeed, Merrett said they usually have between 100 and 200 students happily signing away their rights for pizza in the six years they have held the festival. The pickings were a little slower this year, however, with several people declining the pizza once they realized the price.
“Come on, you’re not using those rights anyway!” Merrett cajoled, wearing an authentic Soviet military hat that a friend had found for her at a thrift shop.
Some students didn’t seem to mind losing their rights — at least for half an hour. Others seemed surprised at how much they couldn’t do — sit where they want, talk about what they want, read what they want.
“It was kind of funny, somebody telling you to stop what you’re doing and say what I want you to say,” said Jasmine Davis.
Nathan Dieckhaus and Zane Norris joined in for the pizza, calling it a “neat experiment.”
“It’s an interesting deconstruction of what happens in a place without (the Bill of Rights),” Norris said. “They give you what you need, but you have to do what they say.”
And by coincidence, a real First Amendment example appeared on the quad. A Christian activist stood by the large painted rock and gave a sermon to passing students on being born again. Merrett said he is a frequent visitor to the campus, and the Alestle has done stories about him in the past. But his appearance adjacent to the Kingdom was pure happenstance.
The festival is a regular occurrence at other universities, all sharing the logo reading, “Eat Free or Live Free: You Can’t Have Both!”
Gary Hicks, chairman of the mass communications department, said not everyone realizes the First Amendment has such broad-ranging repercussions beyond its protections for the press. “Sometimes they don’t understand that this is something that affects them literally on a daily basis,” he said. “They don’t realize that it in fact protects all of us, regardless of our position in life, our role or profession. It provides protection for all of us in its limits on the government’s suppression of speech.”
Elizabeth Donald has been a reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat for 15 years. She serves as president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists and on the ethics commission for the national organization.