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The University of Michigan, ‘American Sniper,’ and the state of college campuses

In this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Bradley Cooper appears in a scene from “American Sniper.” (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Keith Bernstein)

The campus wars are back, and last week, the University of Michigan got pulled into the fray once again, after a campus organization charged with running an event series scheduled and then cancelled a screening of “American Sniper” in response to a petition that suggested the movie condoned anti-Muslim and anti-Middle Eastern sentiments. (The movie was subsequently rescheduled for another venue.) The students’ reading of “American Sniper” doesn’t strike me as particularly credible. But the incident is interesting for what it says about how student protests against events and speakers are evolving, and the larger on-campus issues that these fights often stand in for.

“The movie was changed to ‘Paddington’ just to give you an idea of the stark contrast between the movies that are typically played at this event,” Lamees Mekkaoui, who organized the initial protest, wrote to me in an email. “As an event that is meant to attract all students and be inclusive, there shouldn’t be such a controversial movie being screened. It is an inappropriate time and venue.”

If “American Sniper” isn’t an appropriate movie to screen as entertainment for a diverse group of college-aged students, the idea that a PG-rated movie about a sentient bear ought to be the standard seems an over-correction in the opposite direction. “American Sniper” might offend some students’ sensibilities, but suggesting “Paddington” as age-appropriate entertainment for college students carries its own whiff of condescension about students’ capacities to be entertained and riled up all at the same time. Mekkaoui didn’t respond to several emails I sent her asking for clarification on whether more vigorous offerings like “Zero Dark Thirty” ought to be ruled out, too.

It’s smart and strategic to argue, as Mekkaoui did in our exchange, that “Any movie any student wants played on campus is a welcome opinion,” but that controversial films ought to be placed in context. This formulation makes it harder to cast students who protest certain events as censors. They’re arguing that certain films or speakers have a specific place on campus, rather than no place at all.

But there’s something pessimistic about the idea that the University of Michigan needs to take proactive steps to make sure there will be a discussion about “American Sniper,” or any other campus event. As Nick Gillespie wrote in Reason when the story first broke, “Why do the signatories assume that the audience will simply absorb whatever is presumed to be the offensive message of the movie’s producers? The assumption that the audience is a lump, or a blank screen upon which an agenda in projected, goes unstated but is wrong and offensive. Audiences have minds of their own.” Students at the University of Michigan organized a vigil and town hall in February, in part as a response to the killing of Muslim students in Chapel Hill,  North Carolina; they seem plenty capable of mobilizing to create their own dialogues.

If University of Michigan students truly believe that it’s impossible to have honest conversations on campus about “American Sniper” or anti-Muslim views like the ones Chris Kyle held during his life without setting up a specific “appropriate space for dialogue and reflection,” that is a rather more significant problem.

In recent years, Michigan has experienced a higher rate of anti-Muslim hate crimes than states with larger Muslim populations like Texas, potentially because “Michigan has fewer Muslims than Texas,but the Muslim community is better known in Michigan and therefore easier to target,” as Amer Taleb reproted in 2013. Hate crimes in the state have fallen since a high in 2007, but the rates have remained relatively stable since 2010.

But the University of Michigan also has a record of responding aggressively to actions that are perceived as hateful or insensitive. In 2005, then-university president Mary Sue Coleman wrote the whole student body about an alleged racial attack in 2005. More recently, Michigan Daily columnist Omar Mahmood lost his position at the paper after writing a satire of trigger warnings and conversations about privilege and bias, and then discussing the Daily’s reaction to the piece with other news outlets.

Like so many controversies over campus speakers, events, or even freelance writing by professors, the University of Michigan’s “American Sniper” kerfuffle is both a symptom of and a distraction from larger questions about campus climates and students’ sense of themselves and their environments. “This was a university sponsored event instated with the sole purpose of bringing students together in a fun and safe way and this movie did not fit that theme,” Mekkaoui wrote to me. If safe havens, whether from booze-saturated parties or from anti-Muslim sentiment, are really that rare at the University of Michigan, the school has a problem that a screening of “Paddington” can’t fix.