Columns

Asker ’17: Universities shouldn’t speak freely

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The University of Michigan made a big mistake last week that led to a firestorm of controversy. The case highlights how easy it is for universities to shape their students’ beliefs by exposing them to one particular viewpoint under the guise of promoting free speech. Universities, to be consistent with their mission, need to be aware of this influence over students and carefully restrain themselves.

It all started when the university-sponsored Center for Campus Involvement, which holds social events for Michigan students on most Friday nights, announced it would show “American Sniper” at its upcoming social. The film, which became the best-selling movie at the box office in 2014, is a dramatized biography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who is credited with the most sniper kills in U.S. history from his four tours during the Iraq War. Though some have acclaimed it for rightfully celebrating an American patriot and war hero, others have condemned it for unfairly depicting Arabs, glorifying a racist and perpetuating Islamophobia. Still others, including Herald Opinions Columnist Walker Mills ’15 in his Feb. 3 column, have criticized the film for oversimplifying an immensely complex Iraq War and wrongfully painting everything as good versus evil, black versus white, as though it were that easy.

Subsequent to CCI’s announcement of the showing, members of the Michigan Muslim Students’ Association and others expressed concern in an open letter bearing 200 signatures, the Michigan Daily reported Friday. They attacked the decision to show the movie because it “not only tolerates but promotes anti-Muslim and (anti-Middle East and North Africa) rhetoric and sympathizes with a mass killer.” In response, CCI initially canceled the showing. Shortly afterward, the center announced in a statement on its Facebook page that it would show the film at a separate “forum that provides an appropriate space for dialogue and reflection,” the Daily reported April 8.

It’s a complete mystery why the university thought it was a good idea to begin with to show the movie at a Friday night event designed to provide alcohol-free fun, entertainment and socializing. Just as it would be disconcerting to find copies of “Mein Kampf” strewn amongst the National Geographic magazines in a dentist’s office, so it is strange to find a controversial war movie playing at a casual party. Though there may be an acceptable time and place to read “Mein Kampf,” it’s quite clear that a waiting room is not. Likewise, a fun social function is not the place to watch “American Sniper.”

People may retort that it isn’t even a controversial war movie, but a movie about a war hero and his struggles. But the fact that Muslim Americans have been denouncing the movie warrants us calling it a controversial film. And it’s plain stupid to play a controversial film at a party meant for inclusive fun, not divisiveness. To those who simply say the movie’s meant to be entertaining, I question whether any film centering on military combat and depicting so many war scenes should be watched for leisure, especially if it distorts the complicated reality of a conflict and misrepresents a group of people.

But let’s get back to the story. Outraged by the cancellation, Michigan Head Football Coach Jim Harbaugh, an exceptionally influential figure on campus, tweeted, “Michigan Football will watch ‘American Sniper’! Proud of Chris Kyle & Proud to be an American & if that offends anybody then so be it!” Other students voiced their concerns in a petition stating, “if the University prevents a movie like this from being shown, it promotes intolerance and stifles dialogue.” In response, Vice President of Student Life at Michigan E. Royster Harper intervened and reversed the cancellation, ordering the movie be shown as originally scheduled. She wrote in a statement that the initial decision to cancel was a mistake and that it wasn’t consistent with “the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression,” according to the Daily.

But really, canceling the movie is perfectly consistent with freedom of expression, and showing the movie is what contradicts freedom of expression. As we will see, doing so silences Arab voices, so it conflicts with the purpose of promoting free speech on campuses — to foster students’ intellectual growth through exposing them to many different perspectives.

Obviously free speech on a college campus is enormously valuable and something colleges should ardently encourage. They should protect the rights of students and student-run groups to show and view almost any movie they want so that they’re exposed to a wide range of viewpoints. There is a significant difference, however, between the university promoting free speech for its students and the university itself presenting only one particular viewpoint on an issue. If the university, as opposed to a student organization, sponsors an event and presents only one viewpoint, it is effectively weighing in on an issue and endorsing a particular opinion — whether it intends to or not. For it is privileging one view at the expense of other views, which, without a university-authorized platform, get pushed into obscurity. The privileged view gets the limelight and, simply because of its prominence, people buy into it.

This is problematic because it’s not the university’s place to persuade its students or promulgate its own opinions. Its job is to create an environment where students’ voices rule, not its own. Rather than nurturing a diverse symphony of perspectives that free speech policies attempt to achieve, Michigan drowned out alternative views by not giving them a fair shot of being heard.

Giving one view center stage is especially problematic when students are consuming the narrative in an unreflective, leisurely environment like a relaxed party. Such an environment simply isn’t conducive to the critical analysis necessary for engaging with or even recognizing marginalized perspectives. This problem is further exacerbated when we consider that the perspectives being squelched, namely those of Muslim Americans, have been similarly marginalized in American history.

If Michigan decided to cancel the showing of “American Sniper,” its decision wouldn’t be censorship or antithetical to free speech. Instead, the decision would reflect an understanding that the showing would give an unfair platform to a much-contested viewpoint. The university would realize that it isn’t its place to provide opinions and that it should always be neutral on issues. In general, universities have a special obligation when they put on events to carefully ensure all views are equitably represented, because they can so easily inadvertently privilege certain viewpoints over others. In sum, universities should promote free speech and vigorous exchange of opinions amongst students but avoid opining and speaking freely themselves.

Nicholas Asker  ’17 can be reached at nicholas_asker@brown.edu.

  • disgusted

    Did this idiot really just compare American Sniper to Mein Kampf? What is wrong with you?

    • Arafat

      That comparison really was remarkable stupid.

    • lars1701c

      i saw the movie twice and i can’t believe this ret@rd draws a paycheck

  • Arafat

    Nicholos writes, “But the fact that Muslim Americans have been denouncing the movie warrants us calling it a controversial film.”
    +++
    Nicholas proposes caving in to Muslim demands. If we follow Nicholas’ lead our country will become like the UN or, for that matter, like every single Muslim country where criticism of Islam (Apostasy) is a crime.
    At the UN any criticism or even any honest observations of Islam’s barbarism as witnessed across the globe is considered hate speech. Nicholas, without even being aware of it, is promoting we do the same.

    • Juan Pablo

      But let’s ask this mound of cowardice if Last Temptation of the Christ should have been pulled from any similar events due to the protests of Christians.

      Nope, then we’d be challenging people to question received wisdom and beliefs! The whole point of the university!

  • dugong

    No really. Brown University must not show “Little Mermaid”, because they will risk offending all the merpeople, the dugongs, and the dolphins of the Atlantic. It had taken Chris Paxson’s appointments of exactly 11 committees to come to this conclusion. Therefore the conclusion must be right.

    • Alex

      Also, if one were a radical feminist, one could argue that The Little Mermaid is sexist because why is Ariel (the woman!!) the one who has to change in the end.

      Meh. Anyone can get offended about anything. It’s not a reason to not show a wildly successful mainstream movie.

      • Kirbmarc
        • Joe’s crab shack

          They also think that Frozen is “problematic” and is not a feminist film. I actuality agree that it is not a feminist film. At this point third wave feminists would find an animated version of the vigina monologues problematic because it is not inclusive of transgendered people.

          • Kirbmarc

            Everything is problematic for radfems.

  • Arafat

    Hey Everyone! Let’s pretend the following is not true, OK? That way we can help America become more like, say, Yemen!

    ++

    Globally, the story is the same. Out of the 57 nations which
    comprise the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, only three rise to the level
    of flawed democracies, according to the 2010 Democracy Index by The
    Economist.[7]

    With the exception of communist and former communist countries, Islamic nations impose the highest level of government restrictions on religion.

    Among the predominantly Islamic countries in the middle east and North Africa, 80% have anti-blasphemy laws and 60% of these nations enforce them.[8] Democracy, individual liberty, FREE SPEECH, toleration, and equality are simply not consistent – or even compatible – with traditional Islamic theology and Shariah law.

    • GopherPatriot

      Why won’t you stand by what you post?

      Why do you run? Are you afraid to stand by your truth?

      You always remind us of Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes And clever in their own sight!”

      So here it is: may the Lord deal justly between us both and condemn the one between us who sows hate with their lies on these posts on Disqus. Amen.

      Can I get an amen from you on that, Arafat? Everyone is looking to you as a purveyor of truth so take your victory on us if you have conviction and you are not peddling in hate.

      I take that oath, will you?

  • Arafat

    “I have observed that many Muslims, who were born or
    grew up in the United States while enjoying freedom of speech, expression,
    assembly and whom this country has given shelter and a home, frequently judge
    the United States based on the Quran, Allah, Muhammad, and their Islamic
    ideals, not based on the Constitution or democratic principles and human
    rights. There are several researchers investigating this phenomenon. I
    have noticed that many Muslims criticize this country not based on real
    developmental or economic policies, but based on Islamic principles.”

    Majid Rafazadi

    • GopherPatriot

      Oh Arafat, you have posted throughout Disqus and accused all who oppose your hate of being liars. So, take your victory as you are a purveyor of truth and enjoy the reminder you like to cite:

      “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes And clever in their own sight!” Isaiah 5:20-21

      So, may the Lord deal justly between us both and condemn the one between us who sows hate with their lies on these posts on Disqus. Amen.

      Can I get an amen from you on that, Arafat? You win – take the oath and claim your victory.

      Why do you run? I take that oath, will you?

  • Michael Gebert

    Nicholas, they’ll still come for you no matter how you toady to them today, when you still have the freedom you fecklessly throw away for all of us.

    • DB Cooper

      Let’s keep the focus of our ire on Nicholas, not some dog-whistles about “they.”

      • Michael Gebert

        I think you’re not quite getting this free speech thing.

  • BoSplosion

    I remember a similar piece advocating similar sensitivity and self-censorship to accommodate the feelings of Christians and…er…wait…no I don’t. Funny how a community known for its violent extremism can make you second guess our constitutional rights.

  • SonofaGlitch

    Hey Nick! Who ever paid for your education should Asker for their money back. It’s obviously not working.

    • Arafat

      LOL!

  • Every film or literary work has some sort of point of view to it; they’d be pretty bland if they didn’t. So should they all be banned from campuses? We can’t have our college kids picking up points of view, can we?

  • Juan Pablo

    Time to take away the right to vote from people who attend universities. They are utterly ill equipped to function in a republic

  • Alex

    Brought to you straight from the Ministry of Truth: “But really, canceling the movie is perfectly consistent with freedom of expression, and showing the movie is what contradicts freedom of expression. ”

    George Orwell would so proud.

    • A Less Equal Pig

      My jaw hit the floor on that one. Doublespeak has officially arrived.

      • Arafat

        Speaking of Orwell…

        Islam is a religion of Peace. That is as certain as the three slogans
        of the Ministry of Truth; War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is
        Strength.

        These three slogans of the Party in George Orwell’s 1984 are
        especially applicable to Islam; a religion of war that claims to be a religion
        of peace, whose political parties (such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and
        Justice Party) use “Freedom” in their name but stand for slavery, and ignorance
        of its true nature creates an illusion of strength for industrialized nations
        that imagine that they are only battling a tiny handful of outmatched
        extremists.

        • GopherPatriot

          Oh Arafat, you have posted throughout Disqus and accused all who oppose your hate of being liars. So, take your victory as you are a purveyor of truth and enjoy the reminder you like to cite:

          “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes And clever in their own sight!” Isaiah 5:20-21

          So, may the Lord deal justly between us both and condemn the one between us who sows hate with their lies on these posts on Disqus. Amen.

          Can I get an amen from you on that, Arafat? You win – take the oath and claim your victory.

          Come on – why do you run? I take that oath, will you?

    • AlexCristo

      Total Orwell. Absolutely.

  • Arik Elman

    “the fact that Muslim Americans have been denouncing the movie warrants us calling it a controversial film.” – the Muslim Americans are the yardstick of propriety now? Oh, and why “controversial” means “bad” for you?

  • ReformedTrombonist

    > “The University of Michigan made a big mistake last week that led to a firestorm of controversy. The case highlights how easy it is for universities to shape their students’ beliefs by exposing them to one particular viewpoint under the guise of promoting free speech. ”

    Sure, because as everyone knows, colleges today are inundating students incessantly with a steady stream of conservative positions and values.

    Judging from the quality of thought displayed in this editorial, I’m guessing that the “brown” in Brown Daily Herald stands for something we don’t like getting on our fingers.

  • JCM

    “Doing so silences Arab voices.” Yeah genius, having a biopic about a Navy SEAL shown really puts the kibosh on every Arab trying to disagree, right? How babyish are you that an movie for Christ’s sake is so scary to your feelings that you cannot bear to see it shown? And if you don’t think students are smart enough to think for themselves and you know, process information individually, then you must have a very low impression of them indeed. A movie about a guy fighting a war doesn’t destroy your civil liberties, trying to force that movie not to be shown because it makes you feel all uncomfy inside however, shows a complete lack of regard for the ideals of free speech.

  • William Webb

    This guy is clearly a non-heteronormative victim of a panty raid. Toad Hall forever!

  • Shang Tsung

    The only thing I agree with is the idea that who in their right minds says ‘hey you know what’d be a great party movie: American Sniper’?

    Yes the fact that Muslims are denouncing it, especially if doing so en masse, can qualify the movie as controversial. The problem is what should follow from controversy is not censorship, but instead vigorous response.

  • ’14

    “The case highlights how easy it is for universities to shape their students’ beliefs by exposing them to one particular viewpoint under the guise of promoting free speech.”

    I missed the part where you explained how all of the students who saw the movie were brainwashed.

    • anon

      Snuck that one in there, didn’t he?

      • ’14

        I was expecting some awful acts of racism or violence toward the Muslim students on campus after the screening or something. Nope, apparently it’s just that college students are so unable to think critically about what they hear/see that they just absorb everything as Truth. -_-

  • Embarrassed Brown Student

    This parasitic, spineless attitude is the problem with Brown University. You can concoct a rationale to There are so many people here who have bigger brains than this, who ask impressive questions and actually have the mental faculties to engage in real debates about real things without having them filtered by big brother. Grow up, Asker (and the rest of you clowns). Stop making a fool of yourself and the school.

    • PB

      I toured Brown as a prospective student in the late 90s. The large group presentation was primarily about Brown’s exhaustive everts to foster diversity and inclusiveness on campus, and hardly even touched on academics or career prep. They were so proud of themselves, but it was clear even back then that they’d willingly lost sight of what was actually important in higher eduction; I found myself thinking “This is an Ivy League school? Really?” It was bizarre, and completely devoid of the celebrated intellectualism I’d expected to find intimidating but motivating as a college student.

      Guess it’s gotten worse.

  • DB Cooper

    This is utterly mind-boggling. I feel like I’ve gone through the looking glass. Cancelling speech is promoting speech. Providing a viewpoint results in fewer viewpoints being expressed. Shutting down speech shows that you’re open to speech.

    The Muslim students in question were perfectly free to criticize the movie, to explain why they felt it was wrong, and to encourage people not to watch. I’m certain they could even schedule a different movie for a different time. That, young Padawan, is what free speech means.

    But +1 for touching all the bases: “Privilege,” “problematic,” and even “nurturing a diverse symphony of perspectives.” That one was fantastic.

    • AlexCristo

      Yup. Like in the scene in ‘Seinfeld’. Sex to save the friendship. Think of it. These middling, third-rate social justice activists (who struggle to write in any coherent manner) actually believe ‘restricting free speech to save it’ is a valid and intelligent argument. Such is the state of contemporary discourse.

  • bricko

    Is this the type of douchebaggery the university turns out…..heh. OK then

  • Alec

    I don’t have to like American Sniper or agree with its portrayal of Muslims in order to disagree with the central premise of this editorial. What about academic freedom? Are Universities supposed to start censoring professors that express opinions?

  • embala

    Did you seriously just argue that Arab/Arab-American students are “silenced” by the presence of a movie – which you have hilariously misinterpreted, by the way – on their campus? You have a really low opinion of the fortitude of Arab students that I frankly find racist and offensive. Do you think only white American people are strong enough to live with freedom?

    When a campus cinema program shows Brokeback Mountain or Blue is the Warmest Color and an evangelical Christian group protests it because it promotes “indecency” and creates a “hostile environment” for “all” Christians, are we going to be seeing the same kind of hand-wringing from you? Or will you be the same sort of hypocrite that most people who pooh-pooh artistic expression without understanding it turn out to be?

  • jojofuguti

    Did Asker say whether or not he had viewed the movie? I guess we need him to help us make up our minds.

  • Hank A

    This is terrible logic, just so you know. Regardless of one’s opinion about recent American military action and/or soldiers like Kyle, it’s preposterously stupid to call him a mass-killer. The term, while technically apt, carries implications that make the complainants seem like complete jackasses.

    War is seldom pleasant. In this particular instance, some combatants were Muslim. The movie, however, is just a retelling based on actual history.

    But here’s the bottom line- reverse the positions. If we were talking about a pro-minority film that riled up the school’s beefy midwestern caucasian stock, would you still argue that cancelling it wasn’t a stifling of free speech? (Hint- you wouldn’t- you’d be outraged that UM was “silencing” voices by NOT showing it.)

    You can’t have it both ways, clown.

  • scastro87

    This is really bad and you should feel bad.

  • Dan

    “But really, canceling the movie is perfectly consistent with freedom of expression, and showing the movie is what contradicts freedom of expression. ”

    This statement is literally Orwellian.

  • Subdivision

    Holy crap screen Birth of a Nation if you want to, when did students get so bloody stupid?

  • Crenshaw Pete

    “I question whether any film centering on military combat and depicting so many war scenes should be watched for leisure”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA……Aww, man, that IS great. We’ll have to let Sly, Arnold, Tom, Daniel, et al know that their contributions to our entertainment are…what, dangerous? Illicit? VERBOTEN???

  • AlexCristo

    Am I evil for enjoying ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’? Please do tell me as I await you to enlighten me with more of your sparkling wisdom.

  • Earl of Sandwich

    “”In sum, universities should promote free speech and vigorous exchange of
    opinions amongst students but avoid opining and speaking freely
    themselves.”

    If the University has no say (or ‘shouldn’t’) in what students are exposed to….

    ….why the *!@&$(@# are you paying them money to ‘study’ there?

    Daycare for Kidults?

    • Alex

      I am sooooo stealing Kidults. 🙂

  • taintboi

    this was the least intelligent thing I have ever read

  • Greek Alum

    Nick, you’ve written some really great pieces, but this one completely missed the mark.

  • dookieboot2

    Replace “American Sniper” and “Islamophobia” with “Last Temptation of Christ” and “Christophobia”, and this reads like a Moral Majority opinion piece from the 1980s. In other words, expression that the author agrees with deserves unrestricted freedom, expression that the author disagrees with must be restricted.

    Ironic how the left wing led and accomplished 45 years worth of free speech victories in the US, and now they are same people trying to tear them down.

  • WorstThingIveEverRead

    Yes, Nicholas, the problem nowadays is that liberals don’t have a platform for their speech on college campuses because conservative viewpoints are pushed upon students. Are you seriously this stupid?

  • uodin

    “As we will see, [showing American Sniper] silences Arab voices”

    … No it doesn’t. The correct response to bad speech, if you think this movie is bad speech, is more speech. Showing the movie doesn’t silence Arab voices at all.

  • mphnyc

    mein kampf!

  • Jon Lawhead

    “If Michigan decided to cancel the showing of “American Sniper,” its decision wouldn’t be censorship or antithetical to free speech. Instead, the decision would reflect an understanding that the showing would give an unfair platform to a much-contested viewpoint.”

    But that’s exactly what censorship and opposition to freedom of speech means: refusing to give a platform to an unpopular and potentially disgusting position.

    Is this satire? Do I just not get it?

  • Kirbmarc

    Are you serious or is this an elaborate prank?

  • MosesZD

    I thought you had to read 1984 in HS literature before you went to college. Because what I just read was someone explaining to me that suppression of free speech is free speech. Orwell couldn’t have been more right in his dystopian novel…

    Anyway, so much for the Enlightenment, it’s been a good few years, but today’s spineless, whiny children are more than happy to throw it away so they can remain ignorant of anything out of their safe-space. And while we’re at it, we’ll throw away all Western Jurisprudence and dispense with trials — accusations are proof of guilt and can just shuffle accused, er, ‘guilty’ right off to prison.

  • Todd DuBois

    Sheer idiocy. No, you are not entitled to every single viewpoint being represented at every single event (how is that practical, when you stop and think about it?). You can have other events, speak out at other times and other venues. Free speech means answering speech you disagree with or flat out don’t like with more speech.

    And the very notion of anyone’s voices being “silenced” over the screening of a movie anyone can voluntarily go to or not go to as they choose? Please. Does the author think his fellow students are fragile, delicate snowflakes that need his protection?

  • john Diamond

    Bahahahahaha. and these are the educated democrats talking! Positively Orwellian!

  • obamaiscarter

    Quite possibly the stupidest thing I have ever read, in my life.

  • john Diamond

    The political left has been shouting down speeches since the 1980’s. That is when an alternative world view was being offered by Reagan. IT was appealing and consistent with logic and human nature. They could not refute the arguments and so have resorted to shutting the argument up or simply invalidating the brand, so that the argument is not heard. EVen my Alma Mater shouted down a conservative speaker who had been invited. Shameful how hateful the political left has become.

  • Saikat Biswas

    This idiot really believes that the Muslim students protesting the on-campus screening of the movie speak on behalf of all American Muslims. It’s stereotyping at its worst.

  • Guest

    Nicky, be a good boy and go watch Paddington Bear with the other children. The adults are talking now.

  • Joe Urban

    If one movie is going to change your political views you probably should not be taking up a seat in a university.

  • Smarter than you

    Censorship is not censorship. Allowing it to be shown is censorship. Something tells me you don’t actually know what words mean.

  • Th3Acadia

    What a terrible article. it is doublespeak indeed in its highest form. It seems our author here seems to have forgotten that we fought in Iraq, and as such Hollywood was bound to make a movie about the lives of the servicemen. According to our brilliant author, the cries of the Arab population in the US outstrips the overwhelming support of the movie from the rest of the population. So according to your thinking, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific, should not be shown as they clearly disenfranchise the German and Japanese populations in the US. Only at Brown does the unsubstantiated disenfranchisement of a very small population trump the needs of the majority.

  • tanksoldier

    Yep. Mein Kampf and American Sniper. Exactly the same. Idiot.

  • Adobe Paso

    The is what you get when you let the inmates write for the asylum newspaper.

  • That_Guy

    Nicholas Asker
    The ghosts of the Founding Fathers would like a word.

  • lars1701c

    This movie is only contested because it shines a light on how evil Islam is