A true commitment to free speech requires defending the right to express the most vile, transgressive, and unpopular ideas. And the truest demonstration of that commitment is to hold one's own political tribe to account when it fails to walk the walk on the principle.
You won't find such introspection in "No Safe Spaces," a new documentary that exemplifies the growing "free-speech tourism" on the right.
The film's protagonists and executive producers are Adam Carolla, the comedian and host of the most downloaded podcast in the world, and Dennis Prager, the conservative talk-radio host and founder of the hugely popular YouTube channel PragerU.
The doc lays out an assemblage of the most publicized "politically correct social-justice warrior college-campus snowflakes out of control" stories of the past five years, which the film frames as harbingers of a free speech apocalypse.
While the movie provides solid cases against the logical fallacies made by left-wing activists, it fails to address free-speech violations on the political right and takes the safest route possible by preaching to the choir.
The film's interview subjects include members of the "Intellectual Dark Web" and right-wing YouTubers who are positioned as free-speech warriors. But many of these subjects take an la carte view of free expression seeking government or legal intervention against speech that offends them.
They're not free-speech absolutists. They seem to defend the idea only when they have easy targets, like college students. They're free-speech tourists.
Adam Carolla at the premiere of "No Safe Spaces" at the TCL Chinese Theatre on November 11, 2019, in Hollywood. Michael Tullberg/Getty Images
In a December interview with Insider, Adam Carolla said that while he's never been overtly censored, he has had some indirect experience with it.
"Hollywood has its own version of that ... the version where they don't hire you or they don't let your film into film festivals or they give you horrible reviews on your films," Carolla said. "There's an adult working version of what's going on on the college campuses in Hollywood."
Carolla contends that part of why he's been able to avoid being directly muzzled is that he doesn't work for anyone.
"I write books, I do stand-up, I do a podcast," he said. "I don't have a boss. I don't work for a corporation. I don't work within the Hollywood system. I'm not on a network. If it wasn't for podcasting and stand-up and touring and live shows, I'm sure I would be censored."
When asked why there's no mention of threats to free speech that don't come from college campuses but directly from the government, Carolla said he was unaware of them.
Some of these include the Trump administration order to two universities to amend their jointly run Middle East studies programs to include more positive depictions of Christianity and Judaism or the dozens of state bans that forbid public institutions (such as colleges) from boycotting Israel, and the Texas state policy that actually compels speech from government employees namely, a pledge that they won't boycott Israel.
To his credit, Carolla essentially pleaded ignorance on the topic and expressed his support for the right to boycott: "I'm pro-Israel just because I'm sane. But if you want to protest Israel, you certainly have the right in my world otherwise I'd be a hypocrite."
This is clearly a missed opportunity, as "No Safe Spaces" free-speech street credibility could only be bolstered by having the protagonists of the documentary forcefully defend the rights of people whose politics run pointedly counter to their own.
The self-styled "professor against political correctness" Jordan Peterson at the Cambridge Union. Photo by Chris Williamson/Getty Image
"No Safe Spaces" is indicative of a frustrating trend in an era where the freedom of speech is regularly under attack from both sides. Instead of soberly addressing threats to free speech, the movie relies on some dubious "free-speech warriors" who often don't practice what they preach.
Among them are Jordan Peterson, the professor who rose to fame opposing (and some have argued misconstruing) a Canadian law that he said would "require people under the threat of legal punishment to employ certain words," specifically gender-neutral pronouns for trans persons. But as is noted near the end of the film, Peterson is engaged in two lawsuits against university officials who called him mean names.
Also featured is YouTube host Dave Rubin, who offers such insights as his belief that words like bigot, racist, and homophobe are "nonsensical buzzwords." He has also hinted at lawsuits against people who refer to him by labels he doesn't like, and supports "mass lawsuits" against news organizations for libel.
A third "expert" on free speech presented in the film is PragerU host Candace Owens, who has called for people who burn the US flag to lose their citizenship, a decidedly anti-free-speech notion.
The film repeatedly decries the concept of de-platforming a practice of removing controversial figures from social media and other platforms on the idea that bad ideas will go away if they are not provided oxygen. But in an ironic twist, Prager's own company de-platformed the disgraced alt-right friendly comic Owen Benjamin.
Benjamin's "anti-PC" comedy repertoire previously praised by the conservative free-speech crowd despite being replete with racist and homophobic slurs started to feature overt anti-Semitism in 2018. Not too long after, his PragerU videos disappeared without explanation from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
As a private nonprofit, PragerU has the right to remove videos and de-platform whomever it chooses. But if the idea of de-platforming is truly anathema, a bit of transparency about why they erased Benjamin's videos from the archives would be expected. An explanation of why Benjamin's jokes featuring racism and homophobia made him a free-speech comedy beacon, but anti-Semitism placed him beyond the pale, would also be expected. (PragerU did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.)
It's no surprise that free-speech devotees have genuine concerns about the growing climate on the left of zero-tolerance word-policing, cancel culture, and an unwillingness to engage in good-faith contentious debate. But it's hard to believe anyone watching this film is unaware of any of that.
The doc's inability to grapple with growing animosity toward free speech on both sides of the political aisle shows just how hollow these concerns among conservative "free-speech tourists" are.
For instance, "No Safe Spaces" doesn't find time to address the seven states with bans on positive portrayals of homosexuality in public schools. Or the Republican lawmakers who use the force of their government bully pulpits to intimidate and silence people who offend their delicate sensibilities. And of course, there's no mention of President Donald Trump's consistent hostility to free speech.
There's a documentary film to be made that thoughtfully examines the perpetual cycles of outrage and cancellation in modern discourse. One that skewers performative hypersensitivity and mindless tribalism. One that takes both sides of the aisle to task for their censorious instincts, and for petitioning authority figures to protect their sensibilities from discomfort. That movie is not "No Safe Spaces."
If you don't call out your own side or loudly defend the First Amendment rights of your political enemies, you're not a free-speech warrior. You're a free-speech tourist.
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