The Comedy Police Hold Campuses Hostage
There’s an old saying, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you”—but sadly, those days seem to be vanishing on modern college campuses.
With increasing regularity, students who embrace humor, satire, and parody find themselves with targets on their backs for the crime of challenging political correctness on campus. In the eyes of administrators and students, to do so isn’t funny—it’s offensive. But today, offending others is the worst crime that can be committed in higher education.
Student journalists at the University of California San Diego found this out the hard way in 2015, when they published an article in the satirical student publication, “The Koala,” poking fun at safe spaces designed to shield students from controversial ideas.
If they wanted to provoke a reaction (as student newspapers often do), they got it.
Administrators swiftly retaliated, weaponizing the UCSD student council to revoke funding from the student newspaper. The students responded by filing a lawsuit against the school on the grounds that their First Amendment rights were violated.
After a lengthy court battle, last month the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit gave the journalists the last laugh; in its decision, the Court noted, “[w]e see no reason why the rule articulated in the Free Speech cases cited above—that the government may not withhold benefits for a censorious purpose—should not apply when the state singles out and burdens the press by revoking a subsidy.”
But it’s not just student jokes that are unwelcome on campus—professional comedians have also faced public backlash, as student groups have condemned comedy shows that challenge traditional viewpoints or make some feel uncomfortable.
In recent years, popular comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock refuse to do shows on college campuses because, as Seinfeld puts it, they’re too politically correct. “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice,’” he said.
Some student groups have gone as far as to shout down speakers at the podium or even physically remove them from stage at first hint of offense. Last year, comedian Nimesh Patel was kicked off stage at Columbia University by the same students who invited him to speak. Their official explanation was that they “wanted to go in a different direction,” but the incident was clearly sparked by a joke during his act.
As Patel wrote in the New York Times, “When you silence someone you don’t agree with or find offensive, not only do you implement the tactic used by the people you disdain; you also do yourself the disservice of missing out on a potentially meaningful conversation.”
Most students know—or should know—that the Constitution protects student free speech of all stripes. But on far too many campuses the biggest threat to open discourse on campus seems to actually come from students themselves. And as colleges and universities continue their march towards ideological ossification, it’s students themselves who will suffer as they miss developing the critical thinking skills needed in a diverse workforce.
Throughout history, humor and satire have been essential tools to challenge the powerful—from Canterbury Tales to Alice in Wonderland, Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor. If comedians were to pack up their jokes and go home in the interest of not hurting the feelings of others, countless societal conventions would go unchallenged—and the world would be a less interesting (not to mention, less funny) place.
The student journalists at UCSD who stood up to this toxic censorship culture should be celebrated for their bravery—because it’s only by exposing the humorlessness of these societal scolds that the space for discourse will be preserved. Hopefully, this small victory will embolden other students around the country to laugh at politically correct conventions on their campuses.