On Freedom Day last week, in unison with hundreds of other YAL chapters across the country, Young Americans for Liberty at the University of California -Riverside hosted an exclusive early screening of the hilarious documentary “Can We Take A Joke?” All of our members who could find a break between classes had a blast while tabling and rolling a giant “free speech ball” around campus to promote free speech and advertise the event. Wednesdays are the busiest days for clubs tabling at UCR, so we got some extra attention by also tabling on Tuesday.
We invited students and other passersby to write anything they wanted to say on the ball, under one condition: no one was allowed to cross out anything already written; they had to challenge it with words. The response was overwhelmingly positive. One absolutely awesome improvement that we noticed was that we did not have to work very hard to approach students, because they were coming to us eager to sign up for more information, and every single one gave their phone number and email.
There were plenty of conflicting statements that led to heated discussions about the 2016 presidential candidates and other topics, but nothing quite as controversial as we had hoped for. Passing professors preferred to remain neutral by not writing anything but merely expressing verbal support or showing a thumbs-up for free speech. The campus police and some Student Life officials walked by, but they did nothing to stop us and seemed not to care even when we moved our free speech ball off of the grass and into the central walkway.
Our posters were easily approved by Student Life, but they only allowed up to 10. We are required to get food permits from the university at least two weeks in advance if we are going to serve any food at an event open to non-members. However, we served popcorn at the screening and there was no administration official that tried to stop us. This confirms what we had suspected, namely that the myriad of rules and restrictions placed on student clubs at UCR are mainly just props to give the administration a sense of authority and control.
At the screening, we had a great turnout of around 15 people, at least half of whom had never come to a YAL event before! The movie was hilarious and even sad and infuriating at times, and after it was over we had a great discussion. Everyone who actually showed up to the event already agreed with us on the importance of free speech, from staunch conservatives to Bernie Sanders supporters.
At least one Muslim and one Jewish student joined in the discussion and shared why they supported free speech even though they have not infrequently encountered hostile or derogatory speech toward their own groups. A key lesson we all took from the discussion was that each of us does have something that we can be offended by, but it is important to curb our censorship instinct and even be able to have a laugh at our own expense.