On Saturday, Ralph Albrecht was reminded of his father’s experience as a young boy in Nazi Germany.
“Obviously, he was a kid, so couldn’t do anything about it. But his father lost his businesses and everything,” Albrecht said, referencing his grandfather.
“And really the whole world can be turned upside down [without the First Amendment],” Albrecht added. “I think that’s kind of where you have to appreciate the rights you have to democracy, and speak up when people are trying to go after the lawyers or go after the press.”
Albrecht had just departed the Freedom Lost Café at the Brighton (949 Wharf St. SE), offered as part of the First Amendment (1A) Festival at The Wharf.
At the Freedom Lost Café, attendees enjoyed a free lunch — but at the cost of their freedoms. Rules posted throughout the Brighton’s dining room gave the rules for eating without freedoms: no gathering, no opinions, no prayer and no speaking with reporters (thankfully, a rule Albrecht did not need to follow outside the Brighton).
Negative feedback was directed to the Official Complaints Department; the sign for said department was attached to a trash can.
The café was just one installation at the 1A Festival Saturday at The Wharf. Through immersive theater, musical and comedic guests, family fun and panels, the 1A Fest strove to celebrate and inform “everyday Americans” about the rights enshrined by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Freedom Forum, a nonprofit focused on informing the public about the First Amendment, hosted the 1A Fest Saturday aiming to broaden their audience. Jonathan Thompson, Freedom Forum Chief Outreach Officer (COO), said holding the free event at a high-traffic area like the Wharf was by design.
With 12 to 15 million people visiting the Wharf annually, Thompson estimates about 30,000 people come to the area per weekend. He said the team was confident that the venue’s accessibility would provide a way for the event to reach as many people as possible.
Kevin Goldberg, First Amendment specialist at Freedom Forum, said it’s key for the group to inform and engage such large groups, given that many Americans don’t know their first amendment freedoms by heart.
A 2022 University of Pennsylvania study found that the general public’s knowledge of the First Amendment has declined over the past three years. When asked, one in four respondents could not name any of the rights it enshrines — including the freedom of speech, religion, the press, assembly or to petition the government.
“That’s our starting point,” Goldberg said. “People don’t know anything about the First Amendment, they don’t see it in their daily lives, they don’t understand how it affects them without even realizing it. They’re not exposed to it in a way that makes them go, ‘Ah, now I understand it. Now … I see what happens if it gets taken away.”
Goldberg said this is where Freedom Forum steps in to bridge the gap by creating an approachable, nonthreatening environment where anyone can learn about their freedoms.
In addition to the Freedom Café, the event consisted of a kid-friendly installation, on-stage conversations and live entertainment at transit pier all centered around the First Amendment. The immersive, fictional world called “NoFreedonia” highlighted the experience in a world where the First Amendment was no more.
Throughout the half-hour performance, participants heard from the self-proclaimed tyrant of NoFreedonia and witnessed citizens be thrown in jail for exercising the American First Amendment rights.
Attendee Elena Tscherny said the experience was more realistic than she imagined it might be. She said it reminded her especially of Chile in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, Tscherny was living in Peru and remembers seeing escaped Chileans walking through Lima towards safety.
Tscherny said she hopes the experience reminds participants of the rights they have been granted under the First Amendment and inspires them to stand up for those rights.
Vitus “V” Spehar, a panelist featured at the 1A Fest, said as a journalist, they feel as strongly about the First Amendment as some people do about the Second Amendment.
“I really want people to know that it’s not just freedom of what you get to do, but what you’re not forced to do,” Spehar said. “So I think the more that we can educate folks on that, the more we can empower them to understand that stuff we don’t have to do, and that’s a luxury as well, that we shouldn’t get rid of.”
About halfway through the festival’s schedule, a storm cloud rose over the Wharf and forced the festivities to cease. The canceled events included a live stand-up comedy show and two musical performances.
Thompson said through the performances, the Freedom Forum wanted to showcase that the First Amendment isn’t only about speech, but also expression.
“Part of the conversations we wanted to inspire today is to help people understand and realize that the First Amendment and free speech isn’t just for a politician or the government, it’s for everyday people. And that includes, obviously, artistic expression as well,” Thompson said.
Learn more about the Freedom Forum by visiting https://www.freedomforum.org/
Rachel Royster is a journalism major at Baylor University. She was editor-in-chief of The Baylor Lariat from 2022-23. A former intern at the Waco-Tribune Herald, she is currently a reporting intern for Capital Community News/Hill Rag. Leads: Rachel@hillrag.com