“Freedom of speech and liberty are under assault today in the United States — really threatened for the first time in our history,” said Dennis Prager in a recent live interview in Washington, D.C. “Since 1776, free speech has never been less protected than today.”
Host of a nationally syndicated talk show, Torah teacher, and best-selling author, Prager and his team refuse to take this assault lying down. Today marks a significant point in their pushback against what they call the “illiberal left.”
“No Safe Spaces,” a film co-starring Prager and comedian Adam Carolla, premieres tonight in Phoenix, Arizona. It will open in dozens of theaters — producers hope hundreds — nationwide next week. “This film is really years in the making,” said Prager. “You might say it’s a movie that documents something, that would be fair. But it is both a documentary and a drama, as many dramas take place within it of my life, of Adam’s life, and of many other lives.”
PragerU’s Face-Off with Google
Only hours before the premiere and approximately 700 miles northwest, lawyers for nonprofit group Prager University will face off against tech behemoth Google in a California courtroom located in the heart of Silicon Valley. Their case, Prager University v. Google, contends YouTube has exercised viewpoint discrimination against the nonprofit by restricting more than 200 of its short educational videos.
“YouTube continues to restrict more and more PragerU videos, and they have never given us a logical or rational answer as to why,” said Craig Strazzeri, chief marketing officer for Prager University. “It’s obvious it’s because of our conservative ideology. We’ve had more than 600,000 Americans sign a petition saying they don’t think our videos should be restricted.”
While the film production has no direct affiliation with PragerU, the efforts represent multiple fronts in the same battle. “No Safe Spaces,” from longtime producer Mark Joseph, serves as a thesis statement of PragerU’s cause. It takes audiences on a road trip to several U.S. universities where campus riots, at times violent, break out against invited conservative speakers.
On-scene footage of student protesters cuts to dramatic reenactments of scenes from Prager and Carolla’s lives, short animated vignettes, and interviews with such voices as Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, former Obama administration czar Van Jones, comedian Tim Allen, former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson, and Harvard University professor Cornel West. Yet commentators are merely a backdrop, as the movie chronicles several little-known incidents.
“What struck me is that most people it highlights are not crazy famous or crazy rich,” said Isabella Chow, a recent graduate of University of California, Berkeley featured in the film. “We are just ordinary people who stood up for free speech: students, former professors, people with beliefs that I consider to be reasonable.
“But we had no idea that such shocking responses would happen to us.”
Road Trip Encounters of the Illiberal Left
Audiences may have passing familiarity with some recent events retold in “No Safe Spaces,” although how it draws out details and connects them thematically proves enlightening.
A student mob runs a tenured Washington State professor off campus. Comedians commiserate at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory club about current efforts to censor their jokes. Invited to speak at UC Berkeley, Ben Shapiro gets that opportunity only after the school spends $600,000 in security to ward off Molotov cocktails and the like from student protesters.
“Each of these instances show a huge group of people all thinking the same way,” said Chow. “There is no compelling need for them to understand the one person who is standing up as a minority voice. Freedom of speech is essential for our society, because it guarantees every voice will have the chance to be heard.”
Producer Joseph intentionally paired religious conservative scholar Prager with secular liberal entertainer Adam Carolla as film leads. The movie, backed by more than $690,000 in crowdfunding from 6,868 supporters, aims to convey a message beyond ideological lines.
“If you think clearly, you could be a liberal or you could be a conservative — but you cannot be a leftist,” said Prager. “Leftism can only indoctrinate the naïve. You have to be a child to buy this stuff. Though you could be a 50-year-old child, as many professors and many writers at the New York Times are; that’s why they rant and scream.”
With a show that discusses faith, relationships, and happiness nearly as often as current events, the Jewish author has a broader focus than most of talk radio. It leads Prager to what he calls “theorems of life” that seek to explain these troubling trends of censorship and cancel culture.
“Secularism plus affluence equals boredom,” said Prager. “They don’t have religion, so they have to make up meaning through causes. Causes are to the left what oxygen is to biological life. These causes fill their lives with meaning — which is really a horror, because their causes create chaos.”
Growing Debate Over Big Tech Censorship
The debate over protecting free expression of diverse viewpoints in the public square finds its fiercest battleground on the internet. A handful of technology companies — notably Alphabet (parent company of Google), Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon — have achieved critical mass with their online platforms, which they steadfastly assert are viewpoint neutral.
For instance, Google states its mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Its YouTube video platform explicitly leans into viewpoint diversity, hailing its purpose as “to give everyone a voice and to show them the world.”
“They have a monopoly, owning such a large percentage of market share,” said Strazzeri. “Google claims that YouTube is a public forum open to all — then they turn around and continue to censor our conservative viewpoint. Since we’ve filed our lawsuits, it’s gotten increasingly worse.”
When PragerU filed its first lawsuit against Google in October 2017, YouTube had restricted approximately 50 videos. Today, more than 240 videos are restricted. Nevertheless, wary of heavy-handed government regulations, some libertarian voices dismiss PragerU’s legal claims as “far-fetched” and “a fundamental misunderstanding of … the First Amendment.”
Prager contends such critics fail to understand how the left threatens the liberties of everyone. “Consider if humans cannot have access, through the greatest vehicle of information in human history, to anything but a left-wing idea,” he said. “If that doesn’t alarm libertarians more than government intervention, in this instance, then we have a different value system.”
The claims of both sides were heard informally in a recent public hearing. On July 16, a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, hosted Karan Bhatia, vice president of global government affairs and public policy, along with Prager.
“All of Mr. Prager’s videos — the Ten Commandments, all of those — are available to 98.5 percent of YouTube viewers,” said Bhatia. “Schools and maybe libraries that don’t want to have their viewers exposed to more mature content [have] activated this restricted mode. The Ten Commandments video, for instance, contains references to murder.”
Minutes later in the hearing, Prager responded tongue-in-cheek. “I have a solution that will, I think, appeal to Google,” he said in his Senate testimony. “I will re-release it as the Nine Commandments. That should solve the problem of including murder in my discussion of the Ten Commandments.”
For Prager, the hearing confirmed that merely raising awareness of viewpoint discrimination by tech companies will not solve the issues. “We’re now entering the realm of the absurd,” he said in an interview. “Does Google really believe that children should not hear, ‘Thou shalt not murder’? At this point, Google has been publicly shamed yet their censorship persists.”
When Liberals Champion Free Speech
While “No Safe Spaces” briefly delves into online censorship, the heart of its narrative concerns defending free expression on college campuses. Surprising voices agree with this perspective.
“I want every student on campus to be physically safe,” says CNN host Van Jones in the film. “But if you mean emotionally safe? I don’t know why you’re in college.” Producers state his remarks about the coddling of students through safe spaces played a role in landing the film title.
The inclusion of voices far afield from conservatism may give pause to some on the right. “There are a lot of liberals in it — and that’s what gives us hope,” said Prager. “Seeing a liberal agree with our assessment of the greatest threat in America, conservatives should cheer. Do we want allies, or do we want to feel good? I am only interested in doing good, not feeling good.”
Chow, now a graduate of UC Berkeley and pursuing a career in management consulting, says she values the film as a discussion-starter on issues of liberty. Rather than using it to harden left-right divides, she urges people to listen and respectfully engage with ideological opponents.
“Behind every event where free speech is being pressured or outright violated, those who are seeking to take away somebody else’s free speech are people,” said Chow. “Many times, we start using our slogans, buzzwords, and stereotypes. By doing that, we’re forgetting that it’s not so much a war of words or even ideas. It’s a war for hearts and minds.”
On Thursday, a truck outfitted with LED screens on all sides rolled through Silicon Valley — playing on a loop some of the 200-plus PragerU videos YouTube has restricted. Hundreds of local supporters are expected to attend the Friday hearing and pack out the Santa Clara courtroom.
“The mainstream media has completely ignored the issue of big tech censorship,” said Strazzeri. “In both the courtroom and the court of public opinion, we’re going to keep fighting until justice is served.”
Rated PG-13 for some language and brief depictions of violence, “No Safe Spaces” premieres tonight in Phoenix, Arizona, and in theaters nationwide next week.
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy for several media outlets including The Stream. His articles have appeared in The Daily Signal, The Christian Post, Boundless, Providence Magazine, and Christian Headlines. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area.
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