Can students take a joke?  

By Edward Graham

With free speech issues continuing to embroil higher education institutions in controversy, one of the unintended casualties has been a mainstay of campus social events: the college comedian.

Over the past few years, high-profile comedians such as Chris Rock and Larry the Cable Guy have publically shared their aversion to performances on college campuses because of easily incensed and outraged college students. Last June, Jerry Seinfeld joined with his colleagues when he said during an ESPN interview that he avoided college appearances because “they’re so PC.

John Nagle tabling for Young Americans for Liberty

John Nagle was the president of the Young Americans for Liberty, a campus libertarian student group, during American University’s 2015-2016 school year. (Photo by Natalie Schreyer)

Because comedy, by its very nature, mocks, demeans and satirizes all aspects of society, it should come as no surprise that this bastion of free speech has come under especially harsh criticism on college campuses.

Many advocates of free speech view students’ hypersensitivity to perceived social and cultural slights as having a chilling effect on an open society, especially the ability to tell—and take—a joke.

What’s the punchline?

In an attempt to keep the conduits of free speech humming, some campus advocates have taken more visible steps to highlight the necessity of free speech. One such group is the Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student group with 600 chapters on campuses nationwide.

This April, many of the YAL chapters across the country held free speech events that encouraged students to express their own opinions by writing them in Sharpie on giant inflatable beach balls.

Students sign a free speech ball

American University students signed a beach ball at a Young Americans for Liberty event to promote the right to free speech. (Photo by Natalie Schreyer)

One such event was held by American University’s YAL chapter to help promote the screening of the documentary “Can We Take a Joke?” which examines what happens “when outrage and comedy collide” on college campuses.

The film was sponsored in part by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group based in Philadelphia which advocates for freedom of speech on college campuses. FIRE has a legal program to assist college students if they feel their free speech rights are being violated.

John Nagle, president of AU’s YAL chapter and a political science major, said that attacks on comedic speech and other forms of expression only serve to hinder an open exchange of ideas on campus.

“It’s important for students to realize that free speech is an important value and that universities should be one of the biggest places for free speech in society,” Nagle said. “There’s supposed to be an open exchange of ideas where all ideas are allowed, but increasingly it seems like the opposite is happening where people on college campuses are always walking on eggshells.”

Nagle said that the focus on not offending others was having a detrimental impact on the ability of colleges to adequately serve as bastions of public discourse and discussion. He said that by not providing alternative responses to majority-held positions, those who held the dominant speech in society were not being sufficiently challenged in a way to better understand or appreciate their own platforms.

“So it’s not just for people who feel marginalized, but the whole community can benefit from a healthy exchange of ideas,” Nagle said.

Annamarie Rienzi

Sophomore Annamarie Rienzi, a member of Young Americans for Liberty, represented the group at a campus free speech event. (Photo by Natalie Schreyer)

Annamarie Rienzi, a sophomore at American University and also a member of the university’s YAL chapter, said that the free speech event was one way to allow students to more freely express themselves.

But she added that the atmosphere of open expression YAL was trying to foster through its event often did not extend to comedy on campus.

“I think it’s just the nature of comedians and performers to try to appeal to their audiences, and right now the demographic of college students don’t find politically incorrect humor funny for the most part,” Rienzi said. “And I think that’s the liberalizing of our generation. But I hope that things like this, projects like this, will bring awareness that you can laugh at some jokes that are a little bit off-color, and that’s okay.”

Free Speech and FIRE

The president and CEO of FIRE, Greg Lukianoff, is an American University alumnus and lawyer who co-authored the article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic magazine. This article helped jumpstart the recent roaring debates about whether students are protected too much on college campuses. Its primary focus is on micoaggressions and trigger warnings, which Lukianoff writes cause students to develop “extra-thin skin.”

In a presentation delivered to his alma mater on Feb. 18 called “Freedom of Speech or Freedom from Speech: Defending Free Speech on American College Campuses,” Lukianoff again spoke to his organization’s focus on the state of free speech on college campuses.

As an attorney for FIRE, Lukianoff says that he often finds himself representing students in court who feel their freedom of speech has been violated. A current case that FIRE is handling, Lukianoff said at the event, is that of a student who got into trouble at Modesto Junior College, a public school, for handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day.  The student was told that anyone handing out literature must first register with the administration.  Lukianoff said that this violates the student’s freedom of speech.

He noted that while private universities are not bound by the First Amendment, universities cannot back out if they promise freedom of speech to incoming students. Schools that are upfront about limiting students’ rights before they enroll, said Lukianoff, are legally protected.

“There is a disconnect between the law and colleges,” Lukianoff said.