It's not the way she would have chosen it, but Vicki Evans says the slashing of Access Tucson Community Media's budget in 2010 had a silver lining.

"It forced us to put ourselves out there," says Evans, who is the public access network's development coordinator. "We really had to say 'Here's why we're valuable.'"

When the Tucson City Council swept the channel's remaining budget for that year into the city's general fund as part of citywide budget cuts, Access Tucson was forced to close for nearly three months.

Evans says the staff shrank from 14 to three, and the executive director left. Things began to turn around when Lisa Horner took over the position.

Evans says the nonprofit's staff had to learn how to fundraise to survive. Its first was last year, when it hosted a free-speech-themed fundraiser at Cafe a la C'Art on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art. She says the turnout was a pleasant surprise, and hopes for an even higher headcount Wednesday.

"As public access, we're all about free speech," says Evans. "It's one of our missions." Like the bygone soapbox in the public square, Evans says the channel is open to everyone, views notwithstanding.

This year's fundraiser will entertain with a free-speech institution: comedy. "That's the great thing about comedy," says comedian Eddie Pence. "We get paid to express our opinion."

Pence, a Comedy Central and "Late Late Show" veteran, will headline the event. He was scheduled to perform at Laffs Comedy Caffe over the weekend but moved his trip earlier to perform at the fundraiser, he says during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home.

"How could you not like free speech?" says Gary Hood of Laffs, who will also perform. He says the event highlights the service of public access media. He says that on Access Tucson, everyone from conspiracy theorists to "church guys" can get their messages out.

Evans says teaching people how to use media to express themselves is one of the most important roles of Access Tucson. Since the channel's start in 1984, it has educated more than 20,000 people on technology, techniques and production, she says.

Evans says times were tough, but in 2012 Access Tucson began to grow again, buying up-to-date camera equipment and upgrading software. She credits fundraisers like the one on Wednesday, and the city's response to advocacy for the station.

Evans says she won't speculate on topics that might come up. "Gosh knows," she laughs, "we don't censor!"

If you go

• What: Second Annual Celebrating Free Speech Benefit with performances by comedians Eddie Pence, Gary Hood, Josiah Osego, Amy Blackwell and Henry Barajas. Musical performance by The Introverts.

• When: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday.

• Where: Cafe a la C'Art, in the Tucson Museum of Art courtyard, 150 N. Main Ave.

• Tickets: $30 each or $50 for a pair.

• Info: Sponsor the event and buy tickets on the Access Tucson website,