University of Michigan Fires a Shot at Free Speech

University of Michigan Fires a Shot at Free Speech

Warner Bros.

The film American Sniper turned into an unexpected cultural phenomenon at the beginning of the year. The R-rated drama hauled in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend in late January, a practically unheard of amount for a release of its kind and in that time of year. Within three weeks, the box office in the US alone topped $300 million and reached $345 million by beginning of April. Outside the US, the film about the US Navy SEALS’ most prolific combat sniper made another $170 million as of mid-March. 

In one evening at the University of Michigan, American Sniper will haul in … nothing. The University of Michigan has cancelled the showing of the year’s highest-grossing film at its Friday night UMix Late Night event on April 10th after 300 students protested its depiction of the late Chris Kyle. In a statement written by a group called Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) and the Muslim Students Association, protesters accused the film of promoting bigotry – and of provoking emotional triggers in Wolverine students. 

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“Anti-Muslim and anti-MENA hate crimes are growing increasingly common,” the statement reads. “These incidents create an unsafe space that does not allow for positive dialogue and triggers U of M students.” Even the screening of such a film presents a danger for students, the group insists. “[W]atching this movie is provocative and unsafe to MENA and Muslim students who are too often reminded of how little the media and world values their lives. What we instead should offer is compassion and respect towards others.” 

Of course, this film has played all over the world without seeing communities descend into hate crimes, threats, or even overly triggered college students huddled in corners. There’s a reason for that, which is that the film version of American Sniper doesn’t resemble the picture painted by this protest

The memoir, penned by Kyle himself before his murder in Texas, does argue that those specific Iraqis fighting against the US forces in the war were “savages,” and Kyle makes his distaste of them clear. In the film, though, Clint Eastwood uses the fighting and Kyle’s experiences to construct a much different narrative. The film explores the dehumanizing aspects of war from a sniper’s point of view (which Kyle also discussed in his memoirs), and presents those experience with much more ambivalence than enthusiasm. 

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The climax of the film does not come with a glorious kill shot, but with Kyle’s recovery from the brutal experiences – and odd addiction – to war by serving fellow veterans wounded physically, emotionally, and spiritually by the same brutality. 

Normally, this is exactly the kind of nuance that one would expect to see welcomed on a university campus, which, at the very least, is supposed to explore the fog of war—or at least acknowledge it.  Students should have had a chance to view the film before condemning it. Not at the University of Michigan, apparently. 

Even without screening the film, the Center for Campus Involvement (CCI) – a part of Michigan’s administration – issued an apology for “causing harm to members of our community,” and for “ma[king] students feel unsafe and unwelcome at our program.” In the future, CCI would “screen for content that can negatively stereotype a group.” 

This story, first reported by the blog The College Fix, seemed so preposterous that it could not possibly have been true. I contacted the University of Michigan and confirmed it with Rick Fitzgerald, the school’s spokesperson. Fitzgerald wrote that CCI sponsors eight UMix Friday night events each academic year. The UMix event is intended to “be a fun event and one welcoming to all students,” and that CCI would choose a different movie for that purpose. Instead of airing American Sniper at its event on Friday as originally scheduled, CCI instead would screen it on another date, “with an appropriate educational panel discussion.” 

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Left unstated is why a panel discussion of a box-office smash is required just to air it at all, but that’s the least of the issues here. It’s worth noting that UMix events are not mandatory, nor are film screenings during them. The 300 or so students at Michigan who objected to it could have chosen to do something else on Friday night, or just aired their grievances without demanding that the film get pulled. 

Its website describes the school as “a diverse and vibrant community,” boasting of a student body of over 43,000 young men and women, with a faculty of more than 3,000 tenured and tenure-tracked instructors. The university allowed less than 1 percent of its “diverse and vibrant community” dictate the terms of speech on their campus.    

Why do young men and women go to college in the first place? Especially in the last decade, the costs have skyrocketed, often placing young adults into crippling debt for their education. A college degree gives people a jump start on their earning potential, but the reason it supposedly does so is because education brings them into contact with new ideas, challenges their assumptions, and opens them to wisdom.

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The University of Michigan chose to do exactly the opposite. They certainly didn’t have to screen American Sniper, but their retreat on that choice deprived thousands of Wolverines of the opportunity to see and hear another point of view. Instead, they succumbed to the notion that free speech matters less than “triggers” and emotional responses, even those ignorant of the true nature of the speech about to take place. Unfortunately, Michigan’s actions are the rule rather than the exception on college campuses, where speech codes impose limits on free expression and debate, and administrators worry more about the fragile psyches of their students than exposing them to heterodox thinking. 

However, at least the students attending the UMix on Friday will still have a movie to see, one more suited to the way that the school sees their charges. Fitzgerald confirmed that CCI would screen a more suitable film in place of American Sniper …Paddington, based on the beloved children’s book series. How utterly appropriate, and how demonstrative of Michigan’s paternalism and condescension displayed in this decision. Perhaps next time, the university’s administrators can watch American Sniper for its lessons in courage, if nothing else. 

Update: After this column was published, Ed Morrissey received this notification:

It was a mistake to cancel the showing of the movie "American Sniper” on campus as part of a social event for students. The initial decision to cancel the movie was not consistent with the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression and our respect for the right of students to make their own choices in such matters.

The movie will be shown at the originally scheduled time and location. 

We recognize, however, that some students are uncomfortable with the content of the movie, and appreciate that concern. Therefore, the university also will show an alternative movie, "Paddington," in another location on campus at that same time and date to provide our students with additional options that evening. -E. Royster Harper, University of Michigan vice president for student life

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