What do I mean? A group of students calling itself "Students for Free Thought" sought official recognition by Lawrence University. What did this group want? To promote free thought and free speech. How did they go about trying to do that? By doing something so crazy...so wild...so out of this world that the Lawrence student population AND the Lawrence administration denied them their group status, and have opened up an investigation into the group's "motivations". What did they do?
They screened the critically acclaimed documentary "Can We Take A Joke" produced (in part) by one of the nation's preeminent defenders of campus free speech, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for fellow students. This isn't just any documentary--it features some of the country's funniest, most beloved COMEDIANS. It tells the sad, sorry tale of how American college students have become so wrapped up in seeking their own safe spaces, and so thoroughly unlearned liberty that they can't even LAUGH at jokes anymore.
From the FIRE press release dated May 24, 2017:
APPLETON, Wis., May 24, 2017 — Can Lawrence University take a joke? Apparently not.
On Monday, the university’s student government denied recognition to a student group after it hosted an event where it showed “Can We Take a Joke?,” a documentary on free speech in comedy. Yesterday, Lawrence President Mark Burstein sent a campus-wide email saying that he had found the days since the event “painful,” noting that “some used the forum to make statements that were hurtful and built on ugly stereotypes,” and thanking the student government for its “careful analysis” in denying recognition to what he referred to as “a group of students calling themselves Students for Free Thought.”
Student newspaper The Lawrentian reported that “many students voiced concerns about the content of the movie,” which the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) helped produce and that has the tagline, “When outrage and comedy collide.” One student remarked that the movie, which tells the story of legendary comedian Lenny Bruce and features comedians including Penn Jillette, Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli, and Gilbert Gottfried, contained “a lot of strategic triggering material.” The paper also noted that the screening had to be temporarily halted halfway through after “a heated dispute broke out in the audience.”
“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 Executive Director Robert Shibley. “When first screened for the general public at the DOC NYC film festival in November 2015, the movie was met with laughter and applause. But students and administrators at Lawrence University, which explicitly promises free speech to its students, were happy to cite it when denying recognition to a student group that has ‘free thought’ in its very name.”
Lawrence is a private institution and not bound by the First Amendment. However, it is obligated to keep its promise that “members of the Lawrence community are free to engage in, speak on, and write about scholarly research and creative activity without fear of censorship or retaliation.”
The president of the Lawrence University Community Council, the school’s student government, announced the decision to deny Students for Free Thought official recognition on Monday, explaining that the council was “concerned about the well-being of [the] campus at large” and didn’t believe the group would “have a positive impact.”
The student government cited additional concerns about the group’s anonymous membership, alleged similarity to existing groups, membership criteria, and mission statement. The group also allegedly declined to pursue “collaboration with other groups, campus outreach to find new and inclusive membership, and finding a neutral moderator.”
However, the Student Handbook’s “Regulations Regarding Lawrence University organizations” does not outline these requirements for prospective student groups. These apparently new or unpublished requirements are subjective and rely on the student government’s interpretation of the group’s purpose and mission. It is unclear whether they have been required of other prospective groups.
FIRE will continue to investigate the situation and will provide further updates as events warrant.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
IN. FREAKING. SANE. But it gets worse. In the campus paper, The Lawrentian , students explained why the very concept of free speech is so offensive:
One viewer spoke directly to the three club founders, “You need to take responsibility for what is being shown here and the reactions that are being given.” The statement was met with applause from other students in the audience.
Much of the conversation revolved around where the line should be drawn between freedom of expression and harmful ideologies or speech. One student emphasized, “It’s about the culture of free speech we’re trying to promote.”
Another student responded, “The idea of the culture of free speech is an incredibly privileged one. The reality of our society and the systemic oppression is that people of color and women of this country aren’t allowed free speech because if they talk a certain way, bad things happen to them.”
This is madness. That the president of the university did not simply stand up and say: Wrong. Free speech has been a friend, sometimes the ONLY friend, to powerless and oppressed groups in America and that's what this film is all about is nothing short of PATHETIC.
Shame on Lawrence University. Shame on this institution for pretending that their $57,000 a year education is actually PREPARING young adults to confront a world with the skills and knowledge they'll need to EXCEL. These young people will never truly excel unless they are prepared to confront the REALITY of the world; unless they are armed with ALL THE KNOWLEDGE they can gather to assess that same world. That includes learning things that challenge them socially and intellectually. Lawrence is ripping off students by stealing from them the ability to fully actualize themselves in the real FREE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS.
HERE's the challenge, Lawrence: watch the movie. Laugh out loud. Or don't. Feel good or bad. But MAKE THE CALL for YOUSELF...and yourself only. And let free people be free to THINK for themselves.
LISTEN: Robert Shibley of FIRE discusses the documentary and the situation at Lawrence University.