Documentary Takes Aim At Higher Ed’s Free Speech Violations

Review: Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla's No Safe Spaces

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Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla spend many of the early moments of their new documentary highlighting what makes them different, not what brings them together. Prager, a conservative radio icon, details his upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish family and his work in the Soviet Union where, as the documentary stresses, free speech was nonexistent. Carolla traces his roots from growing up in a middle-class California family to his success as an influential podcast host and comedian.

What unites the two is a belief in the value of freedom of speech in American society. Their new documentary, No Safe Spaces, features interviews with major figures from a wide variety of political backgrounds including former Obama administration adviser Van Jones, bestselling author Jordan Peterson, and activist Dave Rubin. Prager said he aims to bring the message of free and open speech to the places where it is most threatened: the college campus.

"That is truly my dream. To show this at every campus. This is the best possible thing we could do," Prager said during a Q&A session after the screening of the film at the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.

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The film, which opened in a limited release on Oct. 25 and will open nationally on Dec. 6, contains several examples of noteworthy incidents of student protest or violence on college campuses over the past five years.

Bret Weinstein, a former biology professor at Evergreen State College, is interviewed about his decision to stay on campus during a so-called Day of Absence, a move that sparked significant protest and several encounters between Weinstein and student activists. The school’s president ordered police to stand down during the protests. Weinstein eventually resigned and received a $500,000 settlement after filing a lawsuit against the school. The documentary points out that Evergreen’s enrollment suffered in the wake of the controversy.

Weinstein speaks about his confusion over how to handle the situation without any administrative support. He found that attempts to engage directly with students were not productive.

The film also recalls a 2015 scandal at Yale University where an email regarding Halloween costumes resulted in the resignation of lecturer Erika Christakis. A video of Christakis’s husband, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, confronting students went viral. The video showed students calling Christakis "disgusting" and yelling at him to step down from his position due to his disagreement with the idea of creating a "safe space" on campus.

A third example involves a student senator at UC Berkeley, the birthplace of the free speech movement in the 1960s. Isabella Chow abstained from a vote on a bill condemning a Trump administration proposal to recognize gender as determined by an individual’s sex at birth, not by an individual’s decisions concerning his or her identity. Chow cited her religious beliefs for her abstention, saying voting for the bill would have forced her to violate her values. More than 1,000 people signed an online petition demanding her resignation. Students also stormed a school Senate meeting to call for her exile from the student government. Chow tells the filmmakers she was ostracized from all of her student organizations for standing up for her religious beliefs.

Prager criticizes campus administrators for enabling an environment that is hostile toward open inquiry and free speech. He is not alone in this frustration. In a July study published by the Pew Research Center, just 33 percent of Republican respondents said they believe colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country, compared with 67 percent of Democrat respondents.

"I tell people that if you give to your alma mater, if you give $1 million, you have not merely wasted money. I don’t care if you waste your money. I care if you use your money to hurt the society," Prager said. "If you flush the million dollars down the toilet, you would be wasting a million dollars, but you would not be harming society. If you give a million dollars to 99 percent of universities, you are harming society."

Prager also ripped tech companies for encroaching on free speech. He mentioned his lawsuit against YouTube for restricting certain videos on his "Prager University" page. He expressed confidence in the lawsuit’s success, despite a series of setbacks. He also mentioned a leaked email from inside of the streaming giant's parent company, Google. An employee refers to Peterson, conservative pundit and Daily Wire editor in chief Ben Shapiro, and Prager University as Nazis, according to the message.

"What they’ve done on the Left, among other horrible things, is they have cheapened all evil. Nazi means nothing anymore. Racist means nothing anymore. All evil terms mean nothing anymore because of the Left," Prager said.

The documentary has proven divisive among critics and audiences, but has registered far more positive opinions, according to critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The movie comes in the wake of a December 2018 survey from the Knight Foundation examining how free speech views among high school students have changed over the past 15 years. The report found that students who took a class on the First Amendment were more supportive of free speech rights than students who did not. Prager said civic education is needed to reverse alarming trends among young adults, who are more likely than any other age group to demand changes to the First Amendment.

Guests that Carolla and Prager feature in the film fall all across the political spectrum but are united in their belief in free speech. A moment toward the end of the film shows former president Barack Obama speaking about the importance of free speech, offering optimism for bipartisan support for the First Amendment. But as the documentary indicates, free speech is a nuanced and divisive issue bound to continue to be a source of controversy, particularly on campus.