“I’m so offended!”: The White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the threat to freedom of speech

Tessa Morton, Reporter

When Michelle Wolf was chosen to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD), who she was and what brand of comedy she practiced should have been well known, at least by those who invited her. After hearing Wolf roast the White House, its occupants, the administration and the news media, the feigned outrage began immediately. For a night that was designed to celebrate freedom of speech, it was incredibly frustrating to hear the media echo the sentiments of those who have been attempting to silence dissent for some time. Why was this WHCD any different? Was Sarah Huckabee Sanders truly victimized in a way no member of any administration had been victimized before? Did Wolf really go too far?

No. She did not. In fact, for years now the WHCD has led to reactionary backlash from members of both political parties and the media. The only difference is this time attacks on freedom of speech have become a frequent occurrence. Cries of offense at every slight, any critique, and political comedy in general, have become the new norm.

Some of the most pointed jokes made about President Donald Trump came during a past WHCD, by comedian and Late Night host, Seth Meyers. In 2011, Meyers insulted Trump by suggesting any run for office Trump would make would be a complete joke. Meyers also insulted Trump’s hair, as well as the birtherism conspiracy Trump was part of.

In 2006 Stephen Colbert spoke at the WHCD, and in 2015 the Washington Post labeled it “the most controversial Correspondents’ Dinner speech ever.” Colbert spoke as his character from The Colbert Show and mocked President George W. Bush as anti-intellectual. He critiqued the lack of scrutiny into claims the Bush administration had made about weapons of mass destruction. He also made jokes about mass surveillance, which were, again, a critique of an administration plagued by issues, just like Trump’s administration, and the administration of every American president.

It is not only Republican presidents who have faced harsh jokes from a WHCD comedian. In 1996 Don Imus, a radio morning “shock-jock,” was invited to speak. The New York Times reported, at the time, the Clintons were “skewered at a dinner.” Imus made personal jokes about Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs and attacked the then first lady, Hillary Clinton, for her legal problems.

The New York Times went on to say, “the remarks were deemed so insulting that the association sent a letter of apology to the Clintons.”

So why the fuss this time? Truthfully, there is often an extreme and reactionary response. Wolf made sure to remind the audience before she began that she was there to make jokes. In the end, it didn’t matter. In an era when being offended has become not just ‘trendy’ but instinctual, any speech would have had the same effect. Wolf’s joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders was no more offensive than the joke she made about Mitch McConnell’s “neck circumcision,” or Al Franken’s assault allegations, or Megyn Kelly’s cold personality. Perhaps the reason the media responded the way they did to Wolf’s performance was because of her comments on their opportunism and the way they have profited from the Trump administration at the same time as constantly admonishing it. Perhaps attacking Wolf was a convenient way for the media to present themselves as unbiased by seemingly jumping to protect Sanders’ honor. Whatever the reason for the reaction, it won’t be the last time the WHCD is criticized, and it won’t be the last time the right to freedom of speech is tested by the sensibilities of those on Twitter, on the news and in The White House.

The WHCD would have seemed a lot more balanced and unbiased if there had been the traditional response from the president. For the second year running, Trump chose not to attend, and the response from the White House was not given. Maybe next year Trump will participate, and maybe that will make all the difference. Either way, I do not see the event ending or changing, and I also do not see a future where the limitations of comedy are not questioned. Fortunately, I also do not see a future where our right to speak freely is taken away. Presidents, media personalities and comedians come and go. What America stands for and the rights that are protected will stand the test of time.

At least they have so far.