A board at the University of Maryland announced it will postpone indefinitely the screening of “American Sniper” on campus after Muslim organizations opposed the watching of the film as anti-Islamic and offensive. I have not seen the movie, but the effort to prevent other people from watching films set badly with me both in terms of free speech as well as the pluralistic values governing university communities. The movie was critically acclaimed and nominated for six oscars, including best picture, actor (Bradley Cooper) and adapted screenplay. Even people like Michele Obama have publicly proclaimed how the movie touched them. This is not to say that they are right. However, opposing other people from seeing a major artistic work is part of a growing effort to curtail free speech in the West and particularly on college campuses.
We have seen a crackdown on free speech in the West. For other recent columns, click here and here and here. This trend has only increased after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in the West. What is particularly worrisome is that these attacks on free speech are being done in the name of pluralism and tolerance.
The role of universities and private organizations in this trend is equally worrisome. This includes the disgraceful decision of Yale University Press to delete all of the Muhammad cartoons that triggered a spasm of murders and church burnings by Muslims around the world. Yale removed the cartoon from Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons That Shook the World.”
There has been a campaign across the country by Muslim students and faculty to ban the film as offensive. The University of Maryland’s Muslim Student Association declared that “American Sniper only perpetuates the spread of Islamophobia and is offensive to many Muslims around the world for good reason. This movie dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder, and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes.”
There are many films that are objectionable from different perspectives. I never liked Zero Dark Thirty (2012) from a civil liberties stand point because it perpetuated the myth that torture was the key in finding Bin Laden or that it is somehow justified by such results. However, I would not seek to prevent others from seeing it. I am satisfied with voicing my objections to the accuracy and implied message of the film.
Recently, a similar effort led to initially to the canceling of a showing of American Sniper at the University of Michigan but later relented to showing the film after public outcry.
Maryland pulled the film after the objections but failed to explain where this line is drawn over groups preventing students from seeing films on campus. However, Student Entertainment Events, announced that it was contemplating “an event where students can engage in CONSTRUCTIVE and moderated dialogues about the controversial topics proposed in the film.” Once again, it is not clear whether other films would be subject to such special measures if groups or individuals object. While I commend the group for seeking a compromise, I remain disturbed by the lack of clarity in the standard for such postponements or barring of films. Any group can schedule a discussion about a film on their own. It does not serve their interests to be seen trying to deny free speech in this way to others on campus. We have long maintained that the solution to bad speech is more speech — not the denial of unpopular speech. There has been no restriction on the Muslim student group from planning such discussions. The question is why other students should be prevent or postponed in seeing a major and critically acclaimed movie.
What do you think?