According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of millennials believe it would be appropriate for the government to restrict speech that offends minority groups. This mindset is manifesting itself on college campuses across the country, from the disinvitation of controversial speakers to top comedians refusing to perform at universities.
“For the overwhelming majority of my career what I’ve been fighting is administration overreach,” says Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which advocates for individual liberty in academia. “During that entire time the single constituency on campus that seemed to have the most common sense and seemed to understand free speech and due process the best was always the students. And somewhere, two or three years ago, it just kind of changed.”
Lukianoff, who co-wrote a well-received article for The Atlantic titled The Coddling of the American Mind, believes the problem may stem from a lack of understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment.
“Freedom of speech is really a sophisticated concept,” says Lukianoff. “We are so used to it in America that we sometimes forget just how sophisticated it is. Meanwhile if you have a K-12 environment or a parental environment when people are explaining that free speech is just the argument the bully, the bigot, and the robber baron make—that is morally persuasive. And if no one has ever explained to you otherwise, of course you are going to think that free speech is the mean person’s argument.”
To that end, FIRE partnered with director (and former Reason TV producer) Ted Balaker to produce Can We Take a Joke?, a documentary about the intersection of comedy, campus censorship, and outrage culture. The film, which was recently picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and is set for release this summer, includes interviews with Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampanelli, Adam Carolla, Jim Norton, and others. FIRE and Young Americans for Liberty are sponsoring a week of preview screenings across college campuses starting April 13.
“If we just got back to an idea that it’s important to hear opposing points of view, it’s important to give the benefit of the doubt, and if you’re intellectual you should consider it a duty to seek out smart people for whom you disagree, we can do a lot to combat this trend,” says Lukianoff.
Approximately 7 minutes.
Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Joshua Swain. Edited by Bragg.
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