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OPINION | Carolla: ‘Safe spaces’ harm free speech, stunt students

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As someone who makes his living by challenging ideas through humor, social commentary and, if warranted, ridicule, I care deeply about free speech. And there is a growing movement across our college campuses to shut down free speech of teachers, students and invited guests. This should scare the hell out of all us all.

I’ve been doing talk radio for more than three decades and I host a daily podcast. This means I constantly have guests on who disagree with me on many subjects. Challenging their ideas and points of views — while they do the same to me — is an important part of the public discourse. One thing I’ve learned about Americans from talking with them for more than 30 years is that we like to argue and debate, even among friends — and we’re damn good at it.

{mosads}The element of debate is a hallmark of our country, from the time of Sam Adams. By the way, he was not named after the beer, the beer was named after him. So, if you learn nothing else from today, hang on to that.  


But seriously, America has been that “safe space” where truth can be spoken to power. Where “We the People” can challenge a king and a corrupt idea like a monarchy. This right has been reaffirmed through our history. It’s been fought for, and people have died for it. We must understand that we have the right to free expression, not the right to not be offended. This fundamental difference is being lost on today’s college campuses.  

We should not be teaching students to retreat from debate, but to charge intellectually into it. This is one of the most valuable and profound gifts given to us in the founding of America.

When we enter into robust debate, the best ideas will most often rise. It’s when ideas and points of view are censored that our country loses, because we may miss new ideas or other ones may not have been properly examined.

I used to love to play colleges as a comedian. College campuses were a fantastic place to perform, but today the negatively-charged environment where everyone is offended has made it toxic. It’s so bad that some of the top comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher and Chris Rock — not exactly a right-wing cabal — have noted that performing on a college campus is no longer a real option due to the labyrinth of speech codes and hurt feelings.

As comedians, we find subjects, which often includes stereotypes. Then, we make social commentary or a joke about it. String enough of those together and you have a routine. And here’s a window into my business: Offending people is the foundation of what comedians do. Finding a moment, person, group or idea and holding it up for ridicule has been a part of comedy since the very first joke ever told.

Someone will almost always be offended; it’s risky, but if you’re a good comedian the joke will reveal a truth we can all recognize. Without this, we’re all just sitting in a dark theater buying two overpriced drinks. Comedians are the modern-day court jesters holding the mirror of truth back up to society.  

I also know that what happens at college does not stay at college. Given this generation’s impulse to post every moment of life online, nothing they do will stay in college. In fact, it will haunt them from job interview to job interview. There seems to be a growing movement to shut down differing points of view that are not politically correct or fit neatly into today’s “speech codes,” which are nothing short of thought-regulation.

The centrifuge of this movement is ironically the college campus — the place that has traditionally been the center of the free exchange of ideas. Instead, colleges now have places known as “safe spaces” where students who feel threatened by concepts, ideas, differing views, other ethnicities or different economic or geographical backgrounds may retreat.

We currently have more than 20 million people attending colleges or degree-granting programs. This is up from 17.8 million in 2006. That’s a lot of trigger warnings and play-doh and puppy crap to pick up from safe spaces if we continue down the coddling road. But I digress. 

I’ve also seen how speakers have faced being shut down, intimidated from speaking and even physically assaulted on campus. I recently faced being shut down when nationally-syndicated radio host Dennis Prager and I planned to hold an event at Cal State Northridge in California. The producers of the event confirmed the rental of the facilities, and then, suddenly, two weeks prior to the event, were told the school did not want to have controversial speakers such as Dennis and myself on campus.

Me, I can understand the offense, but Dennis, he’s just really tall and really smart. This was later deemed a “scheduling conflict” not a “content conflict”. Eventually, after lawyers jumped in, the scheduling conflict was resolved, and the event was held. It also produced a No. 1 iTunes comedy album. But it showed me up close what is happening on campus. To be candid, it shocked me, because our colleges should be an important place that embraces free speech, intellectual diversity and challenging ideas.

What is provided in these safe spaces, and why is it a problem? Instead of fostering the development of young adults, colleges are providing coloring books, play-doh, puppies and stuffed animals. It’s basically your four-year-old daughter’s bedroom where one can shut out the challenges, facts and outside world. Providing this bubble-wrapped type of education does not prepare the next generation for the challenges of life. It prepares them for failure.

Can you imagine a student like this getting a job in customer service for an IT company where millions of dollars are on the line, and rather than being able to address or fix a problem, they will need play-do and puppies to get through the day?

We also hear a cry for diversity on college campuses, which is total boloney. Diversity by definition doesn’t just mean differing races, genders or ethnicities coexisting. True diversity is intellectual diversity, where differing points of view and ideas can be discussed, even the ones we vehemently disagree with. True diversity requires points of view we disagree with, otherwise it won’t be diverse, only self re-affirming.

But this definition of diversity does not seem to fit within the current college campus. The definition being pushed is not one of true diversity, but reaffirming already approved thoughts. It’s basically like we’re dressing ideological uniformity in a cheap supermarket costume but calling it diversity. We all know the real kid behind the mask, but students and teachers are forced to go along with the charade.

This point couldn’t be made any clearer than by Sol Stern, one of the co-founders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Stern, looking back 50 years later on what he saw as the failure of the original Free Speech Movement observed, “Because the claim that the FSM was fighting for free speech for all (i.e., the First Amendment) was always a charade. Within weeks of FSM’s founding, it became clear to the leadership that the struggle was really about clearing barriers to using the campus as a base for radical political activity. Our movement ignored Orwell’s warning that ‘political language is designed to make lies sound truthful.’”

Orwell was right, and 50 years later, the climate on college campuses is growing worse. The stated goal of diversity has been one of inclusion, but the recent growth of “identity politics” has reversed this to ultimately promote exclusion, nearly indiscernible from Jim Crow laws of the 1940s.

While our national motto is “E Pluribus Unum,” or “out of many, one,” identity politics creates a divisive power play on the pattern of basing one’s identity on characterizations like race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion and on down the line in as many divided categories of oppression as one can imagine.  

Ultimately this movement against challenging ideas is a disservice to students, as they’re not being prepared for the world outside their “safe spaces.” Instead, their diplomas — some of which cost in the mid-six figures — will have actually set them back. I think the only thing worse than being uneducated is being mis-educated.

Adam Carolla is a comedian, television host, actor, podcaster, author and director. He hosts “The Adam Carolla Show,” which set the Guinness World record in 2011 for “most downloaded podcast.” He and Dennis Prager are currently filming a documentary, “No Safe Spaces,” which explores political correctness on college campuses.  

Th views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Adam Carolla Censorship in the United States Education Education in the United States Freedom of speech Political correctness Safe-space
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