Civil Liberties

At U. of Maryland, Commitment to Free Expression Collapses When Muslims Say American Sniper Offends Them

Fear of Muslims is irrational. So is fear of offending Muslims.


American Sniper
American Sniper

Student Entertainment Events, a student group at the University of Maryland, cancelled a planned screening of American Sniper due to complaints from Muslim students.

In an announcement, SEE described the cancellation as a postponement, although no latter date for the screening was given. The announcement also touts SEE's commitment to "free expression" and having "hard conversations." Try not to laugh:

SEE supports freedom of expression and hopes to create space for the airing of opposing viewpoints and differing perceptions. In the event this opportunity develops, we encourage the University of Maryland campus citizens to join us in crafting this type of ongoing community dialogue. While not easy, we want to start having these hard conversations.

The program will not be offered to campus community this semester. SEE would like to take sufficient time to continue communicating with involved parties and other interested members of the university including students and faculty/staff. Together we would like to create a program and space where we can listen to each other and learn. 

Who could be against learning? I'm not. Debate the film, invite professors to discuss interpretations of the film, let critics blast the film—I'm for all of those things. Of course, one would have to possess the fortitude to actually screen the picture, first.

But the Muslim Student Association is never going to let that happen, as long as its members have any say. According to the group's petition to have the screening cancelled:

This war propaganda guised as art reveals a not-so-discreet Islamaphobic, violent, and racist nationalist ideology. A simple Google search will give you hundreds of articles that delve into how this film has fueled anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments; its visceral "us verses them" narrative helps to proliferate the marginalization of multiple groups and communities—many of which exist here at UMD.

… This movie dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder, and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes.

SEE is providing a platform for the spread of such an unjust, discriminatory form of entertainment. SEE has even acknowledged that the film depicts Muslims in a negative light and perpetuate negative ideas, values, and beliefs. According to SEE's constitution, they "work to enhance The Adele H. Stamp Student Union – Center for Campus Life (The Stamp) and its community atmosphere." However, the screening of this film creates a dangerous climate for Muslim students and severely devalues the community atmosphere.

Let's presume the group's worst assumptions about the film are true—even though its politics are considerably more complicated, according to Reason's Jesse Walker—and American Sniper really is anti-Arab propaganda. Would that make it unworthy of being shown at a university campus—a place where students are supposed to grapple with history, art, and culture? Can anyone confidently state that a propaganda film has nothing important to teach us?

The Muslim students aren't making that argument; they are claiming that screening the film makes them less safe by creating a "dangerous climate" on campus and "marginalizing" them. It would be easier to dismiss this wrongheaded notion if it wasn't so deeply ingrained in the minds of so many students; unfortunately, the idea that students deserve protection from even their most unreasonable fears has become distressingly popular at universities around the country.

So I'll say two things. First, who has the real power here? If American Sniper truly contributes to the further marginalization of an already marginalized community, why is it that this student group bent over backward to accommodate the demands of MSA? Why did a similar thing happen at the University of Michigan? Why do university administrations routinely cancel, restrict, de-fund, or suspend the activities of students who draw the ire of the always offended? If trigger warnings are supposed to protect the powerless from their oppressors, why are they most often employed by groups whose views dominate on campus against those whose ideas lack popular support?

Second, if one is so afraid of the damage a film's message could do, isn't engaging it a better tactic than pretending it doesn't exist?

Censorship-inclined students should at least try to answer these questions before they resume their odious quest.

Watch Reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch discuss threats to free spech at Reason Weekend 2015 below.