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Asker '17: Universities shouldn’t speak freely

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


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