Civil Liberties

Vandalized: Residence of U-M Student Who Dared to Mock Trigger Warnings


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Omar Mahmood is a student at the University of Michigan. He considers himself a political conservative and a Muslim. And until recently, he enjoyed writing for both of the campus's newspapers: the institutional, liberal paper, The Michigan Daily, and the conservative alternative paper, The Michigan Review.

After penning a satirical op-ed for The Review that mocked political correctness and trigger warnings, The Daily ordered him to apologize to an anonymous staffer who was offended and felt "threatened" by him. He refused and was fired.

Last week, he became the victim of what The College Fix has described as a "hate crime." The doorway of his apartment was vandalized in the middle of the night; the perpetrators pelted the door with eggs and scribbled notes like "shut the fuck up" and "everyone hates you you violent prick." They left copies of the offending column and a print-out picture of Satan.

The column that caused such a controversy, "Do the Left Thing," was published in The Review last month. It's a first-person narrative in which Mahmood pretends to be a left-handed person who is offended by the institutional patriarchy of right-handedness. A sampling:

He offered his hand to help me up, and I thought to myself how this might be a manifestation of the patriarchy patronizing me. I doubt he would've said those violent words had I been white, but he would take any opportunity to patronize a colored m@n or womyn. People on this campus always box others in based on race.  Triggered, I waved his hand aside and got up of my own accord. …

The biggest obstacle to equality today is our barbaric attitude toward people of left-handydnyss. It's a tragedy that I, a member of the left-handed community, had little to no idea of the atrocious persecution that we are dealt every day by institutions that are deeply embedded in society. So deeply embedded, and so ever-present, that we don't even notice them.

Satire is of course a perfectly acceptable—and particularly important— vehicle for registering dissent with ideological orthodoxies, especially one as pervasive as the culture of political correctness at the modern university campus. Reasonable people can disagree about whether this piece hits home, but not about whether it's a valid contribution to the campus debate.

A staffer at The Daily who saw the piece was furious, however, and complained to editors. One of Mahmood's bosses at The Daily told him that article—which ran in The Review, remember—created a hostile work environment and made the staffer feel "threatened." Mahmood was asked to apologize, which he refused to do.

Daily editors dug up the paper's bylaws and found a provision that forbids students to work for both papers without prior permission from the editor-in-chief. He was told to resign from The Review immediately. After he failed to do so, he was sent a termination letter.

I can't recall whether that rule was ever enforced during my tenure as editorial page editor at The Daily in 2009. But it does exist, and appears to give The Daily just cause to fire Mahmood. But it's difficult to believe that his work at both papers is the root cause of his termination, rather than the views he expressed.

As Susan Kruth of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned, The Daily's actions could end up stifling student-journalism by making writers afraid to express contrarian views:

Of course, independent student newspapers like theDaily are not bound by the First Amendment, but students who value unfettered debate and free expression do not punish peers for saying or writing things with which they disagree. Instead of forcing Mahmood to choose between writing satire and reporting for the Daily, any editor who was offended by his column should have offered his or her own counterpoint to Mahmood.

Instead, the Daily's actions will serve to make students reluctant to write further satire, confining their writing either to the non-controversial or, perhaps, to less entertaining forms. 

That was the end of the story—until last week, when The College Fix reported that Mahmood's off-campus apartment was vandalized. The four criminals wore hoods and baggy clothing to disguise themselves; less brilliantly, they changed in full view of the apartment complex's security camera. They appear to be women of unclear ages. The video footage is available here.

I spoke with Mahmood, who tells me the police are looking at the matter. And I understand that some people have identified the women in the video footage. I will publish an update when their identities are confirmed.

The whole string of events is a sorry indictment of the rampant illberalism of the modern, "liberal" college campus, where writing something that offends someone else is considered threatening, but censorship, vandalism, and actual threats are not.