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[UPDATED] Lawrence University suggests student group may be punished for screening 'Can We Take a Joke?'

Update (9:00 a.m., ET): Last night, the Lawrence University Community Council denied official club recognition to Students for Free Thought. FIRE is investigating the decision and will have an update soon.

Since the FIRE-supported documentary “Can We Take a Joke?premiered in New York City on Nov. 13, 2015, it has been screened on hundreds of college campuses across the country and has facilitated important discussions about free speech, comedy, and censorship.

Last Wednesday, members of Students for Free Thought at Lawrence University held an on-campus screening of the movie that similarly sparked an important — albeit heated — conversation. While FIRE always works to encourage these very discussions, we are concerned by reports that students and administrators at Lawrence appear to be considering ways to shut down dialogue and punish Students for Free Thought for hosting last week’s event.

In an email to the Lawrence community, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Kimberly Barrett wrote, in relevant part:

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. 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.

It’s unclear what Barrett means when she writes that the bias incident reports will be “acted upon.” However, as our previous reporting on bias incidents makes clear, these reports too often result in administrative investigations into, and even punishment for, protected speech. Indeed, in its online bias incident reporting form, Lawrence broadly defines a bias incident to include “the use of degrading language or slurs, spoken or written.” “Degrading” speech might be subjectively offensive, but it is not unprotected.

While an administrator’s investigation alone could have an impermissible chilling effect on protected speech, Barrett’s email seems to suggest that official punishment may be on the table for Students for Free Thought.

Viewpoint-based discrimination against a student group?

As Lawrence’s student newspaper, The Lawrentian, reports, Students for Free Thought met with Lawrence’s student government, the Lawrence University Community Council, the day before the event to seek official club recognition. The group was placed on a trial period that ends at 4:45 p.m. Central time today, when the council is expected to make its final decision.

While Lawrence is a private university and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it does promise its students “the unrestricted right to freedom of expression” — a promise it is morally and perhaps even contractually obligated to ensure is upheld when the council considers official group recognition for Students for Free Thought today. When a university delegates its authority over student organizations to a student government, it must ensure that its agent does not violate the free speech promises that bind the university.

In this regard, it’s concerning that Barrett wrote that she is “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.”

If the feedback is about the viewpoints expressed by the group, and the council factors that feedback into its decision, that could be viewpoint-based discrimination, and the university must step in to reverse the discrimination.

The campus response

We know that the administration has already received negative feedback about Students for Free Thought, as evidenced by the bias incident reports. How much of that feedback is based solely on the group’s message is unclear. However, there was significant criticism of the group during its event last week.

“There’s been a lot of strategic triggering material throughout the course of this movie,” one student told The Lawrentian. Another student told the club’s founders during the event, “You need to take responsibility for what is being shown here and the reactions that are being given.” One student wrote an op-ed,“Students for Butt-Hurt Thought,” condemning the group.

The Lawrentian reports that another student became disruptive halfway through the screening and was asked to leave. The disruption resulted in some debate on campus about the limits of free speech, and it was perhaps the catalyst for a few of the bias incident reports that Barrett referenced in her email. In a letter to the editor, the student who was asked to leave wrote, “Their entire line here is that they have the right to say whatever they want… And interestingly enough, I got thrown out of their event for speaking. Granted it was for heckling a movie, but isn’t that what free speech is all about? Open forums?”

It’s important to note that prolonged heckling that results in significant disruption to an event or speaker — in this case, the extended interruption of a movie — is not a protected, “more speech” response to viewpoints with which one disagrees. Nobody has the right to hijack the expressive portion of an event — be it a speech or a movie — and transform it into a prolonged exposition of their own viewpoint. Doing so is particularly egregious when the presenter has set aside a portion of the event for questions-and-answers and dialogue.

Moving forward

The event seems to have served its intended purpose, generating a dialogue about free speech on- and off-campus. This is evidenced by the numerous articles published in The Lawrentian about the topic and the conversations sparked on Lawrence’s Facebook page.

Moving forward, the worst thing Lawrence could do would be to short-circuit this dialogue by resorting to censorship. If the university’s commitment to learning, dialogue, and free speech mean anything, it will not use its bias incident protocol to investigate or punish protected speech. Nor will the university permit the Lawrence University Community Council to deny official student group recognition to Students for Free Thought because of objections to its views.

FIRE will monitor what happens at the council meeting this afternoon to ensure that the free speech rights of all students are protected.


If you are interested in viewing the FIRE-supported documentary “Can We Take a Joke?,” it is available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Instant Video.

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