Promising an opportunity for “rational, objective inquiry”, the group Students for Free Thought (SFT) had their first meeting of the new school year on Friday. After a succinct informational presentation, co-founders senior Simon Laird and sophomore Chris Wand screened a debate from 2005 between two Harvard professors. The group is attempting to achieve recognition from the Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) for the second year in a row.
SFT has always been controversial, but became infamous when they held a forum in the Wriston Auditorium toward the end of last year. The group screened Can We Take a Joke, a documentary about the rise of “political correctness” at universities against comedians whose material is seen as bigoted in some way. For many, it was a crude reminder of the discrimination they face in their daily lives. Dozens of students attended the forum to protest both the documentary and the existence of the SFT itself. The event quickly dissolved into a toxic tirade of insults and abuse.
Many blame SFT for choosing a documentary they believe was bound to be painful for a large portion of Lawrentians. The event did not include a neutral moderator, which some say could have provided structure for the discussion.
In a tense hearing last year held after the forum, LUCC denied recognition for SFT for several reasons, including a “broad and contradictory mission statement” and “a decision to keep its membership anonymous”. The official statement, provided by junior Jazleen Galvez of LUCC, also says that Students For Free Thought failed to follow certain LUCC recommendations such as “collaboration with other groups”, “campus outreach to find new and inclusive membership” and “finding a neutral moderator”.
With this in mind, LUCC chose to suspend all new group applications this year until they could update the legislation regarding on-campus organizations. “The update was initially motivated by SFT,” said LUCC president and senior Lewis Berger, “but also because this is legislation that hasn’t been changed in over twenty years. We’re reviewing everything right now, which we want to start doing every year from now on.”
Including Laird and Wand, there were only a dozen odd people in last week’s meeting in Briggs. Most were representatives of LUCC or the Lawrentian. The mood was subdued. The attendees were given a blanket trigger warning and were asked not to reveal what any one particular person said in discussion, as the meetings are intended to be a safe space.
Finally came the screening, a debate between psychologists Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke, on whether males and females have the same biological capacities for math and science. The two-hour long video was cut down by an hour and disruptions were prohibited. The congregation watched in respectful silence as the two Harvard associates on the screen presented their arguments in a scientific manner. Afterwards, the meeting concluded with no discussion. A neutral moderator was not included, which Laird and Wand stated they believe will only be necessary for larger events, not weekly meetings.
Laird and Wand see this term as a “new year” for SFT. “We’ve met all the recommendations,” said Laird, “so we’re reapplying.” They say there are about 16 members of the group on Facebook. SFT has also reached out to the Committee on Diversity Affairs (CODA), but admit there are no concrete plans to collaborate in the immediate future.
The group has even promised a new, more detailed mission statement, which is said to emphasize SFT’s dedication to rational, objective and scientific thinking. One slide from Friday’s presentation included a quote from SFT’s “Statement of Purpose”: “For the purposes of the club, ‘objective’ information is information that exists independent of one’s personal feelings, and which could be ascertained and proven correct through empirical observation or through logic. With purely objective information, there can be no disagreement without error.”
Given this statement, it still remains unclear as to why SFT chose to screen the documentary Can We Take a Joke, which features not scientists or academics, but comedians. They were also unwilling to say they would not show similar documentaries in the future. Rather, they are of the opinion that new, clearer rules, and less people in attendance, will prevent clashes from occurring going forward.
Some see these changes as superficial, and do not alter what they believe the group to be at its core: a haven for those who harbor alt-right and other radical right-wing views. Belief systems were brought into high-relief at Lawrence when, only a few weeks ago, a student in Hiett reported that a swastika had been written on their door sign without their knowledge or consent.
“I think there’s a lot of tension,” said junior Shauna Simmons, secretary of Black Student Union (BSU). “We held a safe space for POC freshman in the Diversity Center at the beginning of the year. A lot of them have heard about SFT, but weren’t here last year and don’t have any context. We wanted to give them an opportunity to ask questions about what SFT is and how to cope with that.” For many Lawrentians, the matter of whether or not SFT is officially recognized by LUCC is less important than the knowledge that there are people in the community with deeply ingrained, potentially dangerous bigotry.
Technically, there is no way for LUCC to stop unrecognized groups from assembling, as room requests are covered by the Campus Life office. And as long as SFT includes the disclaimer that meetings are sponsored by Laird and Wand, they may put up as many posters as they like in campus buildings. LUCC President Lewis Berger had this to say to those who feel uncomfortable about certain student organizations: “Hold LUCC and the administration accountable,” said Berger. “Just because we don’t have an answer now, doesn’t mean we can’t find a way to better keep students safe.”