'Free Thought' rejected at Lawrence University

Even freedom of thought is under attack at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, where students recently proved that they cannot, in fact, take a joke.

Student Chris Wand had sought recognition from student government for a student organization called Students for Free Thought, but WBAY reports that the group’s application was rejected Monday, just days after it held a screening of the 2015 film “Can We Take a Joke?”—which some students found “triggering” because of its support for freedom of speech.

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Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) President Lewis Berger did not mention the controversy in a statement explaining the decision, focusing instead on technical objections to the group’s by-laws.

In a campus-wide email two days earlier, however, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Kimberly Barrett supportively acknowledged the “understandable anger” that students felt, adding ominously that she was “certain” that the issue would affect the prospective club’s application.

“We received several bias incident reports including some related to an interaction between two students which resulted in one student being asked to leave the event by a member of the sponsoring group,” she wrote. “Each of these reports will be reviewed and acted upon. I am also certain that LUCC will take all of the feedback they have received into consideration as they deliberate as to whether or not to recognize this group.”

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Student Sabrina Conteh outlined her objections to the film, which features comedians discussing the difficulty of performing on politically correct college campuses, in a letter to the editor of The Lawrentian, calling it “sloppy white supremacist propaganda” and claiming that she was asked to leave the event after being “verbally assaulted” by a white male she suspected of being intoxicated.

“Without any regard for content warnings, these white terrorists on training wheels began their invasive claiming of a supposed community,” she recounted. “Offensive comedy is one thing but telling black and brown bodies and that our lives don’t matter under the guise of ‘free speech’ is white nationalist rhetoric.”

She later admits to having attempted to disrupt the screening, saying that “throughout this movie I, and others in the audience, chimed in our two-cents,” but then takes umbrage at being told to “shut up” by students wishing to view the film.

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Despite becoming a major point of controversy on campus, though, the film screening was not cited as one of the reasons that Students for Free Thought was denied recognition.

Instead, Berger argued that the group’s by-laws violated student government rules by keeping its membership anonymous, imposing “vague” membership guidelines that could be used to vet prospective members, and generally failing to accede to recommendations issued by the LUCC Steering Committee during the group’s trial period.

In addition, he asserted that “the group is similar to other groups already existing on campus,” a condition listed as grounds for rejection in the Student Handbook, and that its mission statement is “very broad, and at times contradictory to itself,” though he did not include specific details.

“LUCC believes it is important for LUCC groups to have a positive impact on the Lawrence University campus,” the statement concluded. “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."

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