Documentary viewing causes controversy at Lawrence University

File photo (WLUK/Scott Hurley)

APPLETON, Wis. (WLUK) -- An issue sparking protests and sometimes violence at universities nationwide is now being debated at Lawrence University in Appleton. We're talking about free speech.

The documentary 'Can We Take a Joke?' has started a controversy on the Lawrence University campus.

"We thought it would be a very good way to start a discussion about free speech on campus, which is something our group advocates. We want more free speech," explained Chris Wand, co-founder of Students for Free Thought on campus.

Students for Free Thought held the showing last Wednesday, although Wand was quick to say neither he nor his group approves of or agrees with everything shown in the film.

Wand told FOX 11 News he and two other students started the group this year to promote free speech, which he says is under attack at some colleges.

"If you have a political view that's outside of the norm, usually people attack you personally for it, rather than debating based on the facts," Wand told us.

But the fact is, not everyone appreciated the documentary.

It shows famous comedians making jokes about subjects like racism, sexism and rape.

"I feel like that movie in particular was chosen to cause controversy," said sophomore Rachel Herrmann.

One student wrote an editorial in the school paper saying she was "verbally assaulted" for expressing her distaste during the film.

"It was not. She was making noise and she was asked to leave," Wand said, responding to the allegations.

We reached out to the student in question, but did not hear back.

Herrmann told us she was there and that many students were yelling about what they found offensive. Herrmann questioned why the only student asked to leave was a woman of color.

"What they did in itself was shut down conversation and they're supposed to be promoting free speech. It's really important that we listen to people of color," she said.

Others told FOX 11 there is a fine line where free speech becomes hate speech, meant to hurt others.

Some said Students for Free Thought should have warned others about the content of the film.

"Those warnings would greatly benefit people who have different circumstances or who might have different circumstances and find those jokes offensive," explained Lauren McLester-Davis, the chair of the university's Committee on Diversity Affairs.

Wand told us he does think something positive came out of the showing of the documentary. He said it got people talking.

"I had people come up to me and say that they'd never seen such a diverse cross section of people in one place, in one meeting on campus," Wand explained.

The School's Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Kimberly Barrett, was at the event. She said this can be a learning experience for the campus on how to talk to people with different ideologies.

"One of the things that I think universities have prided themselves on is trying to help students gain those skills, at least to think critically about those issues," she explained.

The Lawrence student government voted against recognizing Students for Free Thought as an official university club.

Representatives of the student government said the club did not fulfill certain application requirements.

Wand told us the club will continue, without the school's recognition.

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