Comedian Hannibal Buress had his mic cut off at Loyola University Chicago last Saturday after a joke about the university’s restrictions on his act.
Buress was booked to perform at an annual event open to students for Loyola’s Department of Programming at the Gentile Arena on campus. According to reports from the Loyola Phoenix, Loyola’s campus newspaper, Buress had his mic cut off just five minutes after his act started when he projected an email containing the school’s restrictions on his performance onto a screen on stage (pictured above) — including a ban on content involving rape, sexual assault, race and sexual orientation — started making fun of them, and then made at least one joke about sexual assault within the Catholic Church after his mic was cut off.
Videos from that night show Hannibal riffing on the terms of the restrictions:
“There were content restrictions that were put with this gig, which I agreed to but then today, I was like ‘aw fuck that.’ I don’t know who it is that is really into content restrictions but I’m almost certain that they aren’t under the age of 45. Imagine that. A grown, out-of-touch person trying to police what goes into your ears and brain.”
According to Consequence of Sound, after Buress’ mic was cut he said “Bitch ass old people, I can project. Y’all fuck kids, right?” Students said the scene was tense after Buress’ mic was cut, according to the Loyola Phoenix:
“I literally thought like I was about to witness a riot and I was ready to participate,” [student] Ally Boly said. “Also it’s wild that Loyola preaches about speaking up and speaking out but they’re gonna censor someone doing just that, like that’s wild. Also I’m really impressed with all the Loyola kids that stood their ground and refused to leave without an explanation.”
In a statement to Variety, Loyola confirmed that it had cut Buress’ mic because of his show’s content, stating that he had “violated the mutually agreed upon content restriction clause in his contract.” The statement continued, “[i]t 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,” suggesting that while other speakers have violated the university’s conditions before, it considered Buress’ remarks a bridge too far.
According to reports, Buress continued his set on stage without a mic before being drowned out by music, and then after a brief recess, came back on stage and made jokes about his mic being cut off.
Buress’ situation differs in some respects from appearances by speakers invited by students or faculty. Buress was invited by the administration itself (he might be a bit out of the price range of student groups nowadays), which is free to place restrictions on speakers it invites. That differs from, for example, administrators imposing restrictions or conditions on speakers invited by students or faculty. If administrators cut the mic of a comedian invited by students or faculty because of the content of her speech, that would be a clear intrusion into freedoms promised or guaranteed to the students or faculty who extended the invitation to hear a chosen speaker on chosen topics.
Just as a university has the right to demand preconditions of a performer it hires, however, students have the right to question the propriety of those conditions. After all, according to Loyola’s own 2016 policy called “Respect the Conversation”:
“At Loyola University Chicago, we are a community that welcomes debate and differing views to advance education and understanding. We believe in conversation as a way to problem solve and work toward social justice.”
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?