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Lawrence University: We can’t take a joke

  • Lawrence University’s student government denied group recognition to a free speech club after it screened a documentary about free speech in comedy.
  • FIRE calls on the Lawrence administration to stand behind its promise to students of free expression “without fear of censorship or retaliation.”

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.


Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

Mark Burstein, President, Lawrence University: 920-832-6525;

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