The Maryland American Sniper Saga

I haven’t seen American Sniper. I’m just not that interested in seeing it, honestly. It has nothing to do with Chris Kyle, or snipers, or terrorism. I’m just not a pop culture guy.

But what I am is a First Amendment guy. So the concept that a scheduled University of Maryland American Sniper screening was cancelled because a few people protested is a very big problem for me.

UMD’s Student Entertainment Events pulled a planned screening of American Sniper after a few complaints from the Muslim Student Association. Their statement, amusingly, says: “SEE supports freedom of expression and hopes to create space for the airing of opposing viewpoints and differing perceptions..” Though it’s hard to understand how one could say that SEE supports freedom of expression when they cancel the screening of an award-winning movie due to a few rotten apples.

The Muslim Student Association “ praised the decision, citing it as evidence university officials cared about creating an “inclusive, just and safe campus community.” Of course, what they didn’t say was that the decision showed that university officials really were not particularly interested in the free exchange of idea or in the diversity of thoughts and opinions being presented to the student body. Prior to the cancellation, the MSA said that even screening the movie would “create a dangerous climate for Muslim students and severely devalues the community atmosphere.” (You should also check out their petition supporting cancellation as they expound upon their bizarre reasoning). They never really explained how showing an award-winning movie about a war hero would do that, but they didn’t have to. School officials caved like a cheap suit to their demands.

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Reason’s Robby Soave points out that their logic is, in a word, wrong-headed:

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?

Of course a look into past events hosted by the same Student Entertainment Events shows that there has not bee a heck of a lot of diversity of thought in the events that they chose to present to the student body. Past performances include evenings Gloria Steinem, Cornel West, illegal immigrant journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. While those three provide radical left-wing viewpoints, all three performances went on. Nobody complained, nobody protested, and the free expression of thought was allowed to continue unabated.

In a must-read piece on The Daily Beast, James Poulos notes that the nationwide-trend of cancelling screenings of American Sniper is indicative of a bigger problem on modern college campuses:

Put differently, the story-beyond-the-story concerns not what political correctness has done to academia, but what academia has done to political correctness. Alone, there’s something tremendously inconsequential about the emotionally fragile urge to micro-police all attitudes—in much the same way that there’s not necessarily very much at stake when people go around acting like jerks. In a mature environment, humans often opt—often without much fore- or afterthought—to simply shake off acts of political correctness or incorrectness.

But while today’s college campus is many things, mature it is not. This in itself is a special sort of problem, especially from the standpoint of those who believe that infantilization has set in and America’s teens and twentysomethings are being emotionally disabled by the institutions that surround them.

Read the whole thing. And when even the New York Times has written about it, you know we as a nation have a serious, serious problem.

And that brings us back to the University of Maryland. Because the University of Maryland is a state funded institution. The University System of Maryland accounts for $5.6 billion of the FY 2016 budget, of which over  $1.9 billion is allocated for the University of Maryland, College Park. To put it in perspective, 4.8% of the Maryland State Budget is dedicated to funding the state’s flagship institution. And for our $1.9 billion, we can’t even guarantee that students attending our flagship university have the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of opinions and perspectives. Our taxpayer dollars cannot even guarantee that Free Speech is practiced on our campus.

The Muslim Student Association has ever right to protest the screening of any movie, no matter how ridiculous they look in the process. That’s the flip side to free speech. People have the right to say things, and people have the right to protest what they are saying. However, the fact that Student Entertainment Events capitulated to the demands of a few squeaky wheels now means it’s open season on each and every event that SEE chooses to produce from here on forward. And if they capitulate to one group that is demanding satisfaction, they’ll have to capitulate to any and all groups that are demanding satisfaction, less they be exposed as favoring one ideological opinion over another.

Strong-minded people do not need to be sheltered from opinions that are different from them. However, weak-minded people do not have the right to dictate terms for how people exercise their rights to free speech. That is important anywhere in society, but most importantly on the colleges and universities that are supposed to exist as places where knowledge is gained, perspectives are broadened, and minds are molded. Colleges and universities should be places that make people grow, not daycare centers from immature young adults. While this is true of all schools, this is doubly important for state-funded institutions.

The University of Maryland needs to prove that it is worthy of the title of a flagship institution and vow to protect freedom of speech on their campus. Because if they don’t, we should be asking for our $1.9 billion back, because taxpayer funded dollars should not be used to suppress freedom of speech on campus.

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