Loyola University Chicago students were furious when school officials cut off comedian Hannibal Buress's mic just a few minutes into his routine on at a university-sponsored performance Saturday night.
Buress had begun by calling attention to the agreement the university had forced him to sign as a condition of giving a performance: It prohibited him from talking about rape, sexual assault, race, or sexual orientation. Buress, who is black, often incorporates politically charged themes in his material.
A few minutes into his routine, Buress made a joke about sexual abuse within the Catholic church, which prompted school officials to kill his audio, according to the Loyola Phoenix. Loyola is a Catholic university.
"Loyola University Chicago cut the mic on Hannibal Buress's performance Saturday, March 17, because he violated the mutually agreed upon content restriction clause in his contract," Loyola spokesperson Evangeline Politis tells Reason via email. "It is standard for the University to include a content restriction clause in entertainment contracts; Buress is the only entertainer to disregard the clause to the degree that his mic was cut."
Buress attempted to perform without a mic, so officials reportedly turned up the background music to drown him out. He then left the stage for 15 minutes. Students in the audience began chanting "Hannibal" in protest of the university's decision. Finally, the comedian was allowed to finish his performance.
Since Loyola is a private university, it is within its rights to impose conditions on would-be performers. But there are plenty of reasons to think a blanket ban on speakers addressing controversial subjects is a terrible thing for a university to enforce. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Bill Rickards writes:
So one has to wonder, how well does Loyola handle the full thrust of public debate if this is how it responds to jokes about a sore subject for the Catholic Church?
When universities impose restrictions on a performer's speech like this, whatever their legal right, it is important to consider the implications of those restrictions and the question of what is accomplished by enforcing them. Comedy, in particular, is an art that often drives social change, allowing a speaker to set aside—or indeed poke at—discomfort around sensitive or charged subjects in order to challenge ideas and powerful people or institutions. For example, Buress sparked renewed public attention to allegations of sexual assault by Bill Cosby. Do academic institutions serve themselves well when they invite comedians to perform and entertain, so long as they don't challenge those institutions?
Everyone who opposes mandatory trigger warnings in the classroom should be similarly concerned about an administration enforcing "content restrictions."