And sometimes it gets ugly.
Consider Lawrence University. The college denied recognition to a student group promoting free speech.
One big reason – the group hosted a screening of “Can We Take a Joke?” The documentary examines the attacks on free speech on college campuses nationwide. And, more importantly, how that oppression is bleeding into the culture at large.
Lawrence University students decided to prove the film’s point. Over and again.
The May 17 screening of Can We Take a Joke, which chronicles how “outrage culture” is hurting comedy, was disrupted more than once by hecklers.
One student opined in the college’s newspaper the assembly was a “sloppy white supremacist propaganda screening veiled as a forum for ‘free speech and logical thought.'”
HiT reached out to Balaker, the film’s director, to find out if this was an isolated incident.
HiT: Talk about the reaction to the film in general — what jumps out at you the most?
Balaker: Overall I’ve been extremely pleased with the reaction the film has received from audiences and reviewers. The comedy world was especially positive. Free speech shouldn’t be a partisan issue and it was really nice to see comedians ranging from Larry the Cable Guy to Seth MacFarlane embracing the film.
But, believe it or not, the most gratifying part has probably been how the film has been received on college campuses. Yes, there have been the predictable eruptions of outrage and narrow mindedness, but what’s been far more common is that the film brings people with different points of view together and sparks meaningful discussions about free speech and open debate. Who would have thought a film with so much cursing could bring people together!
HiT: You experienced some blowback while screening the film. Can you briefly detail what that looked like?
Balaker: We’ve had cases of people tearing down promotional posters on campus. At UC Irvine someone pulled a fire alarm before a screening and Q&A I was scheduled to participate in. The alarm basically cancelled the whole event. And of course recently there was the fallout at Lawrence University where protesters interrupted a screening, followed soon after by the student organization that hosted the screening being denied recognition.
There were plenty of angry letters, so-called “bias reports” (if your readers want to get really depressed they should read about the emergence of “Bias Response Teams“), and a public message from a dean in which she addresses the fallout.
Certain topics will illicit really passionate critiques, and my team and I expected (and received!) plenty of that. Some people disagreed with the film in some ways, but did so in a thoughtful way. Others were completely unhinged. Very often these offer little in the way of specifics, it’s just more of an angry blizzard of buzzwords and ad hominem attacks.
HiT: The documentary also fostered the kind of open debate we need more of today … can you share an anecdote or two about that?
Balaker: The screening at Ohio’s Capital University was co-sponsored by College Democrats, College Republicans, and Young Americans for Liberty. Jason Fugate, treasurer of Campus Democrats, said, “The film did a good job of sparking discussion between students with different philosophies, and gave them an opportunity to better understand each other.”
One account of the screening and discussion at Ithaca College noted that the students who showed up were from different backgrounds and majors but they were “unified through laughter” while watching the film.”
One of my favorite experiences came when I was invited to a screening and discussion at Mount Saint Mary’s University (LA’s only women’s university). The atmosphere was pretty intense after the film, but we ended up having the most energizing discussion, and finding a lot of common ground.
It was exactly what you’d hope for—everyone was passionate and respectful. Afterward the professor who organized the event shared some student take-aways, which included things like “It is important to discuss controversial issues rather than push them under the rug,” and “Free speech, even though it may be offensive to you, should still be respected.”
HiT: Do you have any similarly themed follow-up projects planned?
Balaker: Yes, we’re working on turning “Can We Take a Joke?” into a series. It’d keep the same focus on comedy and pop culture outrages, but it wouldn’t be a documentary. The format would be more “Tosh.O meets The Green Room.”
HiT: Have free speech concerns gotten worse or better since the film’s release? Has Trump’s election moved the needle one way or the other?
Balaker: In some ways things have improved. Our pals at FIRE have made some great progress at certain campuses. But in other ways, things have gotten considerably worse. When the film came out, that Mizzou professor was calling for “muscle” to deal with a student journalist who was asking questions she didn’t like. That kind of reference to violence was bad enough, but now we have actual anti-speech violence breaking out on campuses like Berkeley and Middlebury.
It’s hard to disentangle the Trump effect. He’s pretty awful on speech issues, but maybe that’s prompted others to embrace the benefits of dissident speech a bit more (too bad their embrace seems to be so context-specific, and does not typically extend to college campuses).
HiT: What can you share at this point about your next film project?
Balaker: “Little Pink House” is finished but is still at least about six months from its public release. It has been doing the festival circuit. It’s won and been nominated for some awards and has been lauded by outlets like The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline Hollywood.
John Stossel said this about it: “Seeking video for my TV show, I watch films all the time. ‘Little Pink House’ is more entertaining than any of them. Excellent filmmaking and a great message.”
The film will be the centerpiece of an outreach campaign we’ll orchestrate with the Institute for Justice. Our goal is to finish the fight Susette Kelo started by pushing to reform eminent domain laws and strengthen property rights.