Why are Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager friends and what are they doing in a movie together? Carolla, an atheist and comedian known chiefly as the host of the Guinness record-setting podcast The Adam Carolla Show, and Prager, a religious Jew and popular conservative radio personality, are an unlikely pairing. Bonding over a shared set of “commonsense” values, the two men became friends and embarked on a tour of college campuses to discuss the importance of the First Amendment — the one about free speech — against an increasingly vocal opposition. Justin Folk’s No Safe Spaces features excerpts from these sessions, interspersing them with reenactments and footage of recent free speech controversies that arose when conservatives were invited to appear on college campuses. While somewhat loose and undisciplined in its structure, the film builds a case that academia is the primary battleground in a war to eliminate ideological diversity in the United States.
Sometime around 2013, speech codes on colleges campuses began to include references to “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”— concepts that sought to protect students from harmful ideas. Soon after, a string of controversies involving civic protests against speakers began to make national headlines. Bret Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist teaching at Evergreen State College, became the target of student protesters for refusing to participate in a race-based campus event. Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University, was ostracized for showing a clip from a debate regarding the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Provocateurs Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos were forced to cancel speaking engagements after violent protests and heightened security alerts spread throughout campus. The fact that these last two incidents occurred at UC Berkeley, the birthplace of the 1960s free speech movement, is an irony that is not lost on the filmmakers.
When did the script get flipped? How did yesterday’s free speech advocates get replaced by those that wish to silence unpopular or politically incorrect voices? What massive social, technological and spiritual conditions gave rise to a generation of college students too sensitive to encounter controversial ideas? These questions are beyond the scope of No Safe Spaces — the film simply wants to place the issue on the table. The idea that liberty is not a natural human inclination but rather a value that every generation must fight to preserve lends the documentary an urgency that may boost its visibility as it expands to more theaters in the coming weeks.
Despite its pressing social relevancy, the film has its flaws. The reliance on cartoon interludes — including a spoof of Schoolhouse Rock which earned the film its PG-13 rating — to punctuate its more serious points seems forced. More centrally, the movie doesn’t bother to extrapolate on why people would want to boycott people like Ben Shapiro in the first place. But the film, which features a writing credit by John Sullivan, director of the polemic 2016: Obama’s America, shrewdly employs a diversity voices in its chorus: Cornell West, Alan Dershowitz, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson and Shelby Steele all have their say. Even Barack Obama appears in archival footage advocating the importance of encountering ideas that run contrary to your own, foreshadowing his recent critique of woke and cancel culture at the Obama Foundation’s annual summit in Chicago last month.
No Safe Spaces concludes on a cautiously optimistic note, giving credit to a country that has attempted the impossible and seems continually on the brink of achieving it. As Van Jones puts it in an excerpt from The Adam Carolla Show, “We’ve got every kind of human being ever born in one country. And we mostly get along.”
AMC Burbank 16, 125 E. Palm Ave., Burbank; Fri., Nov. 15, various showtimes; $7.79-$16.49; (818) 953-2932, amctheatres.com.