Movie controversy sparks free speech debate at Lawrence University

Published: May. 22, 2017 at 8:23 PM CDT
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A debate over free speech has erupted on the campus of Lawrence University.

It started after a student group showed a controversial movie featuring comedians making jokes about things like race and sexual orientation.

As a member of a student group hoping to promote free thought at Lawrence University, Chris Wand has no regrets about showing the movie "Can We Take a Joke," which is a documentary featuring comedians poking fun at efforts to be politically correct.

"On many liberal arts college campuses throughout the country there's sort of a hostility to free speech. For example, if you have a political view that's out of the norm, usually people attack you personally for it," said Wand.

While Wand says the movie was meant to start a conversation, it also sparked controversy.

During the showing one student was kicked out for being disruptive. Others were given warnings.

Lawrence University student Lauren McLester-Davis said, "I believe there was a lot of inappropriate material covered within the film that affected a lot of students, particularly students who have been affected by sexual assault, in addition to students of marginalized backgrounds as those were the primary jokes made throughout the film."

McLester-Davis is also the Chair of the Committee on Diversity Affairs at Lawrence University.

A story about the incident prompted headlines in the school newspaper and even editorials. School officials say they did warn students ahead of time about the content.

"I think it is definitely harder today to have those conversations because society in general is highly polarized, and we don't have role models in our government about how to get along across differences to work together towards the common good," said Kimberly Barrett, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at Lawrence University.

Students for Free Thought had sought official recognition by the LUCC- which is the student government.

On Monday night the LUCC rejected that request and LUCC President Lewis Berger cited the following reasons in a statement.

"Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) has voted to deny Students for Free Thought. The decision was firmly grounded in LUCC legislation, found in Section IV, Part B, Point 2 of the LUCC By-Laws (found on page 103 of the Lawrence University Student Handbook). The reasons for denial include, but are not limited to, the following:

 The group has made a decision to keep its membership anonymous, which goes against the requirement of LUCC student organizations to be open and public.

 The group is similar to other groups already existing on campus.

 The membership guidelines of the group are very broad and vague, and allow for a great deal of subjectivity in deciding who can and cannot participate in the group.

 The mission statement of the group is very broad, and at times contradictory to itself.

 The group failed to consider many of LUCC Steering Committee’s recommendations during the trial period, including recommendations to examine all of the problems previously stated. Other recommendations that were not followed include collaboration with other groups, campus outreach to find new and inclusive membership, and finding a neutral moderator, which we felt was essential for the group.

Additionally, LUCC believes it is important for LUCC groups to have a positive impact on the Lawrence University campus. We felt this group is not currently structured in a way that is conducive to a positive impact on campus and were concerned about the well-being of our campus at large."