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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Free speech, comedy on today’s college campus

Does there need to be an underlying message in “offensive” humor?

On campuses big and small throughout the United States, invited speakers are protested, teachers are penalized and presidents are stepping down because of the content of their speech.

While the country embraces speech freedoms more completely than ever, there is a simultaneous and increasing demand for sensitivity. All speech, when heard by a broad audience, has the potential to effect serious change. College students in particular are demanding more respectful, more politically correct and more aware speech.  

When Wesleyan University nearly shuttered its oldest campus publication after it published a student op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, when the president of Claremont McKenna College stepped down after backlash for an email saying that a low-income Latina student has trouble fitting into the mold of the school’s typical student and when Yale students called for for two educators to step down after they questioned whether or not administration should lecture students on the potential cultural insensitivity of Halloween costumes — one should stop and wonder whether this kind of outrage really does contribute to the making of a more peaceful world.

This conflict, in which many who speak out against the restriction of speech are attacked, is riddled with irony. Students call for increased dialogue on controversial issues while silencing the people who may make disagreeable comments. Students abridge speech against those with unpopular opinions on topics like LGBT+ rights, affirmative action and immigration as they become the majority, even though it was free speech that allowed those movements to become part of popular opinion. There is even irony in the way some students protest the speech they dislike. These students are not of the opinion that right speech can trump false speech — they look to administration to take down those who speak against the issues they hold dear.

Comedians face the some of the most stringent sanctions on their speech if their material can be seen as offensive to any group.

Some comics are now forced to make the decision to either censor their acts or not join the lucrative college circuit at all. Students at the National Association for Student Activities “wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free, comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student,” according to writer and social critic Caitlin Flanagan. Not only do students condemn the comedians whose jokes are in poor taste, but the comedians feel similarly negative about the students. Although many individuals new to comedy rely on the exposure and compensation that colleges and universities can offer, comedians are increasingly unwilling to abide by what they view as unnecessarily strict standards of political correctness.

Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have both said that playing on campuses is not as fun as it used to be, because many students have grown so sensitive. On whether or not a joke ultimately has an important message, Rock says that, “You can’t even be incorrect on your way to being correct.”

But some comedians are unphased by the climate on college campuses. After a comment by Bill Maher during his talk show in which he compared Muslims to the Mafia, students at UC Berkeley protested his presence on campus, but he showed up regardless. Maher told students that hearing things that are hurtful, offensive and wrong may not be comfortable or even “the right thing to do” — but can be funny and informative nevertheless. Often the things that make us laugh do so because they are shocking, absurd, unacceptable or frightening. When Maher makes broad statements about Muslims, the public laughs because we know we shouldn’t make those sorts of generalizations — that they are untrue, ridiculous and a little shocking.

Students will no longer tolerate comedy that is crude for the sake of shocking the audience or getting a laugh. One student writing to Jerry Seinfeld said, “[I] believe there is a responsibility, especially when a well-known comic is talking about sensitive topics like race and gender politics, to have an underlying message to be said.”

College students live in an era in which the things they say and post may cast a shadow over them eternally. Social media perpetuates the life of words, and makes the stand up acts of comedians accessible at any time and by anyone. People can argue that comedians use stereotypes just for the sake of comedy, and that there is value and humor in the absurd and inappropriate. But in our increasingly educated, connected and globalized community, the next generation of leaders seems to be saying that humor at the expense of others must do more than make us laugh — it must also make us think.
There are few genres of art that can strike a nerve as profoundly as comedy at its best. That’s what Stella Sappington, a first-year undeclared student, hopes to examine in her column on the role that comedy plays in the current political and social climate. Students have notably tried to disinvite guest speakers like the sharp-tongued Bill Maher from campus for what they perceive as threatening speech. How to reconcile words that may be offensive with principles of free speech is among many topics Sappington hopes to address head on.

Written by: Stella Sappington — sasappington@ucdavis.edu


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