No Safe Spaces

The funny thing about “common sense” is that it's not as common as people think. Nowhere is that more demonstrable than in politics. Ask the most staunch conservative and the most hardcore liberal you know how they formed their views, and they'll likely cite common sense as a factor. But of course, the left and the right rarely agree on anything. That brings us to No Safe Spaces, a free speech documentary that raises a few worthwhile issues, without ever stopping to question whether its cries for common sense are really all that sensible.

Our hosts are comedian Adam Carolla and conservative commentator Dennis Prager. They're concerned that free speech is being suppressed across America, but primarily on college campuses, where controversial figures like Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Jordan Peterson, and Milo Yiannopoulos have had to cancel speaking engagements due to protests. The men make their argument via footage shot during their shared speaking tour, animated comedy bits, and interviews with like-minded individuals, including comedian Tim Allen, CNN reporter Van Jones, and civil rights activist Cornel West.

Some undoubtedly important points are made during the documentary. Few would disagree that free speech is vital to the American way of life. It's one of the ideals our country was literally founded upon. Carolla and Prager are correct that the exchange of ideas is important and healthy, that political correctness can go too far, and that if society starts censoring people, we're all theoretically in danger of being silenced at some time.

There are two especially powerful sequences. The first finds Prager engaging a group of African-American college students in a respectful, substantive discussion of whether racially-charged language should be allowed, despite most people agreeing it's bad. The other focuses on Bret Weinstein, a former professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He became a local pariah after showing up to work on a symbolic “Day of Absence” in which all white faculty and staff were asked to stay home. Although an extreme example, it's disturbing to see how thoroughly so many people turned on him.

Despite a couple valid arguments and compelling scenes, there's something disingenuous overall about No Safe Spaces. It claims to be worried about free speech being suppressed, but it's actually only worried about conservative speech being suppressed. Weinstein aside, right-wing figures are who the movie focuses on, and liberals – i.e. people with ideas of their own – are mostly cast as villains.

Related to that, No Safe Spaces steadfastly sidesteps the fact that words have repercussions. They can instigate. Several of the individuals mentioned in the movie espouse points of view that are potentially detrimental to minorities, the LGBT community, and others. Obviously, those groups would feel threatened by speakers who push white nationalist, homophobic, or xenophobic messages. And when protests happen on college campuses as a result of speeches containing this sort of material, the protesters are exercising – you guessed it – their free speech. Asking them to shut up is directly opposed to what No Safe Spaces is ostensibly arguing for.

Scattershot construction – which bounces haphazardly between public lecture footage, animated interludes, and interview segments – doesn't help. Neither does the annoying tendency to not always tell us what, specifically, banned speakers have said. For instance, we're introduced to Isabella Chow, a member of the UC Berkeley student senate. She couldn't vote for something due to her Christian beliefs, but No Safe Spaces doesn't say what the issue was or which of her remarks caused an uproar. At times, the movie feels like it's hiding things that might partially negate its philosophy.

Glimmers of a thoughtful movie can be found in No Safe Spaces. Free speech and our collective reaction to the ugliest aspects of it is a subject well worth exploring. Carolla and Prager aren't entirely committed to that, however. The basic message of the movie is “People should not be silenced, so be quiet if you're offended.” That seems entirely misguided.


out of four

No Safe Spaces is rated PG-13 for some language and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.