A group of Lawrence University students are facing intense backlash on campus after they screened “Can We Take a Joke,” a documentary about free speech in stand-up comedy.
Students loudly interrupted the May 17 screening at the Wriston Auditorium on campus, forcing organizers to briefly pause the film “as a heated dispute broke out,” the Lawrentian reported. After it was completed, another student denounced the “strategic triggering material” littered throughout the movie.
Since the May 17 screening at the Wriston Auditorium, the student government announced it would not give Students for Free Thought official recognition on campus, saying they were “concerned about the well-being of our campus at large.”
In an emailed statement to Heat Street, student government president Lewis Berger said the group was denied recognition for “structural reasons” and “not because of reactions across campus” after the documentary screening.
For instance, Berger said, the group did not clarify their membership criteria and kept their membership anonymous—both reasons the student government has denied other groups recognition, he said.
“Also, the mission statement seemed contradictory because it advocates for free speech, yet the club’s leadership told [student government] that emotion cannot be brought into the conversation; discussion had to be only the facts. We felt like this conflicted with the idea of free speech,” Berger said.
He also said that the student government was concerned about the absence of a neutral moderator at open discussions about controversial issues. “It was clear at the event how essential a neutral moderator is to a group set up around debate,” Berger said.
“I do believe there is room for a free speech club on campus and a need for a space for conservative students,” Berger said. “These groups just need to have the right structure in order to be recognized. … Members of [student government] were aware of the club’s effect on campus climate, but we stuck to legislation and past precedent in making the decision.”
In a campus-wide email about the documentary screening, Lawrence President Mark Burstein wrote, “The event and its aftermath have left many students wondering whether the University cares about their safety and our ability and desire to foster constructive discussions of serious issues.”
He described the days since the documentary’s screening as “painful ones” and thanked student government for its “careful analysis of the issues surrounding the group’s application for formal recognition.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which helped produce the documentary, denounced Lawrence University’s reaction, as well as student government’s refusal to acknowledge Students for Free Thought.
“There could hardly be a better illustration of the point ‘Can We Take a Joke?’ made about the effect of outrage culture on free speech than what happened at Lawrence University,” said FIRE’s executive director, Robert Shibley.
Craig Gagnon, a spokesman for Lawrence University, said administrators were “committed to a productive discussion” of crucial issues, adding that the free exchange of ideas is “the core of our educational mission.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.