On Tuesday morning, a University of Michigan undergraduate student, Lamees Mekkaoui, wrote a letter to the Center for Campus Involvement — a university organization that sets up social events for students — about the CCI’s decision to screen the film American Sniper at this Friday’s UMix event. UMix is a Friday late-night social gathering, held at the student union, which has something of an in loco parentis feel, as it features things like Build-A-Bear, bingo, inflatable laser tag, karaoke, and no alcohol.
Mekkaoui had seen American Sniper, and she didn’t think the film was an appropriate choice for this sort of event:
Mekkaoui, who is a a member of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality and the Middle Eastern and Arab Network on campus, said she found the choice of film disconcerting because of its depictions of the Iraq War and residents of the Middle Eastern and North African region. . .
“As a student who identifies as an Arab and Middle Eastern student, I feel that ‘American Sniper’ condones a lot of anti-Middle Eastern and North African propaganda,” Mekkaoui[‘s letter to CCI said].
She posted her letter on Facebook at 11 AM, and almost immediately many students reacted by voicing similar concerns. This led Mekkaoui to write a second letter in the form of a petition, which she sent to CCI just two hours later:
Students had the opportunity to edit the content of the letter and sign it on a Google document before Mekkaoui sent the collective letter to CCI at 1:00 p.m. It garnered roughly 200 signatures from students in the Muslim Students Association as well as other students who didn’t self-identify with the Middle Eastern, North African or Muslim communities, but wanted to contribute their signatures in solidarity
In the final version of the letter, students voiced several concerns over the film’s portrayal of Arabs and the Middle East and North Africa regions.
“Although we respect the right to freedom of speech, we believe that with this right comes responsibility: responsibility of action, intention, and outcome,” the letter read. “The movie ‘American Sniper’ not only tolerates but promotes anti-Muslim and anti-MENA rhetoric and sympathizes with a mass killer.”
This petition led CCI to cancel the scheduled showing of American Sniper at the UMix. The CCI statement said that, in light of student reaction, it had concluded that the UMix was “neither the venue nor the time” to screen the film, and that it would therefore replace it with something “we believe better creates the fun, engaging atmosphere we seek, without excluding valued members of our community.”
The CCI also pledged to “screen for content” more carefully in the future, when considering what sorts of films might be appropriate for events of this sort.
Predictably, this decision provoked an almost instant backlash among other students. Law student Rachel Jankowski launched her own petition, asking CCI to reverse its decision:
The movie American Sniper is not about a racist mass murderer or a criminal. It is about a decorated American war hero who served his country valiantly. While we may disagree about the motives and politics of the Iraq War, the movie shows the sacrifice that Chris Kyle made, like so many of his fellow servicemen and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our country, including numerous University of Michigan alumni. If the University prevents a movie like this from being shown, it promotes intolerance and stifles dialogue and debate on the subject and goes directly against the atmosphere UMix purports to provide. As adults at a public university, we should have the option to view this movie if we so choose and have the opportunity to engage on the topics it presents to come to our own conclusions on the subjects. Students should be trusted to interact responsibly on a movie no different than any other film depicting the lives of the troops at war, such as Saving Private Ryan.
Thus beleaguered, the CCI did a 90-degree turn, announcing yesterday afternoon that it would screen American Sniper, but at a different time and place, and with a panel discussion to follow:
We are planning to screen American Sniper separately from the upcoming UMix event, in a forum that provides an appropriate space for dialogue and reflection. More information will be provided as details are confirmed.
Not surprisingly, this didn’t placate the objectors, and late last night the university threw in the proverbial towel:
It was a mistake to cancel the showing of the movie “American Sniper” on campus as part of a social event for students.
The initial decision to cancel the movie was not consistent with the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression and our respect for the right of students to make their own choices in such matters.
The movie will be shown at the originally scheduled time and location.
We recognize, however, that some students are uncomfortable with the content of the movie, and appreciate that concern.
Therefore, the university also will show an alternative movie, “Paddington,” in another location on campus at that same time and date to provide our students with additional options that evening.
(1) It’s very important to distinguish between a university’s academic and social functions. A petition protesting a screening of a film in a classroom or at a conference would be a completely different matter than the original petition in this dispute.
Mekkaoui’s original complaint doesn’t seem to me to have been inappropriate. I haven’t seen American Sniper, and have no opinion on the extent to which, if any, the petition’s description of it is accurate. The core of her objection, however, was that showing this film in this particular venue was a mistake, given that it could make many Muslim, Arab, and North African students (the University of Michigan has an unusually large number of students, relatively speaking, from these backgrounds, as southeastern Michigan is home to many people of Middle Eastern descent), uncomfortable, and UMix is supposed to be a lighthearted social event:
“The reason why the film was disturbing to be played at UMix is because UMix is supposed to be fun and inclusive, and the movie ‘American Sniper’ raised a lot of controversy from all sides of the spectrum,” Mekkaoui said. “It’s clearly not something that could be fun and inclusive. It just doesn’t go with Build-A-Bear and inflatable laser tag, those things just don’t go with ‘American Sniper.’ ”
Again, making students (appropriately) uncomfortable in academic settings, by forcing them to confront difficult questions in pedagogically useful ways, is a much different thing from this sort of objection, which goes to the social atmosphere the university is promoting outside academic settings.
(2) While nothing is easier than to play the role of Captain Hindsight, in retrospect the CCI should have anticipated that canceling the screening would end up exacerbating their original mistake of scheduling it to be shown at a UMix event. Doing so has almost surely stirred up exactly the sorts of prejudices whose existence made Mekkaoui uncomfortable when she saw the film originally.
(3) Jim Harbaugh should be spending his time finding a serviceable quarterback.