Can We Take a Joke? Dives Headfirst Into the Battle for Free Speech

Defenders of free speech from across the ideological spectrum packed the Newseum in Washington, DC, earlier this week for an advance screening of the documentary Can We Take a Joke? The screening, hosted by the Charles Koch Institute in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union-National Capital Area (ACLU-NCA), the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), was an opportunity to highlight the crucial role that free expression plays in the arts.

“Free speech allows us to question the status quo and challenge ourselves to be better,” said Sarah Ruger, who directs free speech initiatives for the Charles Koch Institute. “The arts are an essential pathway for social commentary and introspection, and now, more than ever, we need more toleration.”

The film, which officially opens July 29 and will be available on demand August 2, explores the long and contentious relationship between censorship and comedy, highlighting the current tension between outrage culture and the arts. It explores the implications of stifling speech, from Lenny Bruce’s frequent encounters with law enforcement to the threat of physical violence against student comedians. Can We Take a Joke? addresses a current generation of students that may not remember or realize the tangible consequences of restricted speech.

Following the screening, attendees were invited to participate in a Q&A session with director Ted Balaker, producer Courtney Balaker, FIRE CEO Greg Lukianoff, ACLU-NCA senior staff attorney Scott Michelson, and comedians Karith Foster and Gilbert Gottfried. Ted Balaker, who moderated the discussion, began by asking the panelists what might be done to battle censorship.

“It’s important to think what we can do as citizens,” replied Michelson. “Not all of the censorship shown in the film is censorship of an equivalent kind—there’s government censorship versus social pressure. The remedy for speech you don’t like is more speech.”

The film’s featured comedians cited censorship’s threat to creativity as a major concern. “Comedians want a microphone any chance they get,” joked Foster, co-creator of Stereotyped 101. “But now they’re being told the art they’ve honed and crafted for many years is no longer acceptable.”

Gottfried, who is featured prominently in the film, is well-known for having voiced the Aflac duck for over 10 years. Discussing the end of his business relationship with the insurance company, Gottfried told the crowd: “My favorite tweet at the time was, ‘Aflac fires Gilbert Gottfried after discovering he’s a comedian.’”

Though the media scrutiny on Gottfried was short-lived, he recalled the intensity of those pursuing the story at the time. “I noticed vehicles that were parked outside my house all week and I just thought, ‘This was the biggest criminal they could possibly find?’”

The panelists agreed that an especially dangerous climate of intolerance is now being fostered on university campuses. As the film portrays, several students were even threatened with violence for their comedic acts at Washington State University and Reed College in 2005. “For most of my career, I was fighting mid-to-low-level administrators on university campuses,” Lukianoff recalled of his organization’s work promoting free speech. “But now, in recent years, we’ve encountered a lot more students.”

“In society today, there is a blame game. So many want to blame others for how they feel,” Foster explained.

Yet this type of behavior can be harmful, argued Courtney Balaker. “Kids need to experience being upset so they can defend themselves in the real world.”

Lukianoff agreed. “There is a value to being offended.”

As the Q&A session drew to a close, participants remained hopeful that common sense and a commitment to the principles of freedom can prevail over the systematic silencing of speech. “You’re powerful enough with your own voice—don’t let anyone take that away,” Foster said. “If someone doesn’t like it, that’s their issue.”

The intersection of art and freedom of expression holds a unique space in the cultural landscape and exerts a significant influence on the operation and understanding of freedom in society. The Charles Koch Foundation therefore invites proposals for research projects that seek to further understand ways in which toleration and free speech can improve individual and societal well-being.

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