Last week, when a University of Maryland student group postponed a screening of the award-winning film “American Sniper” after complaints from Muslim students, a backlash erupted.
As at other campuses such as the University of Michigan and George Mason University, Muslim student leaders criticized the biographical war drama about Chris Kyle, a lethal Navy SEAL hunting down al-Qaeda leaders, as stereotypical, offensive and violent.
That touched a nerve for many, who felt that the film showed an American service member risking his life to fight terrorists and that open debate on campus was being smothered — especially when some reported that the screening was being canceled entirely, rather than postponed.
On Tuesday afternoon, U-Md.’s president, Wallace Loh, announced that two student groups, the College Republicans and the College Democrats, would sponsor a joint screening of the movie on Monday night, followed by a panel discussion about the issues raised in the film.
Loh noted, “We were deluged by phone calls and messages from across the country, almost unanimously outraged by the cancellation or postponement. Members of our faculty, staff, students and alumni, as well as members of our State’s legislature, voiced their dismay with UMD’s abridgment of this constitutional right.
“Perhaps most disheartening, [the Muslim Student Association]’s Facebook page was filled with some of the most venomous, racist, and hateful messages imaginable.”
The group had objected to the film with a statement that read, in part, “American Sniper only perpetuates the spread of Islamophobia and is offensive to many Muslims around the world for good reason. This movie dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder, and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes.”
Meanwhile, at George Mason, where the administration did not postpone or cancel a three-day screening earlier this month, some students responded to a Muslim student group’s petition with one of their own; they now have more than 400 signatures to bring the film back for more screenings. They had concerns, Ryan Keenen, a student at GMU, said, that the administration would shun future screenings to avoid controversy. Keenen is hoping to have a sponsored screening soon that would raise money for the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, which supports people who serve the country and their families.
Keenen was driven to do that because he wants as many people as possible to see the movie to help understand not only what soldiers go through in war but what they have to deal with when they get home, he explained. One of his best friends has been deployed three times while a student, he said; the last time he was blown up by an IED and still has shrapnel in his shoulder.
One night when they walked into a friends’ room and his friend saw a glimpse of a war movie on the TV, he had a flashback. “Watching the horrors of war flash on his face, I had no clue how to react. American Sniper lets people who have never experienced this a better empathize with soldiers.”
His co-sponsor on the project, Justin Makepeace, said in an email, “This is of great importance because the story of Chris’s life needs to be told. Our veterans are coming home from multiple combat deployments and are struggling to adapt. ‘American Sniper’ brings to light the life of a warfighter that goes from defending his brothers while overseas to coming home and adjusting to life at home. ”
Here is Loh’s full statement:
Dear University of Maryland community:
Last week, Student Entertainment Events Productions (SEE), an independent student group on campus, announced its decision to postpone a screening of the film American Sniper that was scheduled for early May. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) had discussed with SEE their view that the film was anti-Muslim. SEE, already busily preparing for an upcoming major concert, elected to reschedule the screening until next fall in order to properly plan a post-film panel discussion.
Media sources then reported that UMD “cancelled” the movie. That UMD failed to uphold the basic right of freedom of expression. That UMD caved-in to a small number of students. We were deluged by phone calls and messages from across the country, almost unanimously outraged by the cancellation or postponement. Members of our faculty, staff, students and alumni, as well as members of our State’s legislature, voiced their dismay with UMD’s abridgment of this constitutional right.
Perhaps most disheartening, MSA’s Facebook page was filled with some of the most venomous, racist, and hateful messages imaginable.
Today, two student groups, the College Republicans and College Democrats, announced they will be screening the film next Monday, May 4, at 6 pm, in the Hoff Theater. It will be followed by a panel discussion of the themes and issues raised by the film.
However, this was not merely a matter of scheduling on campus a film that can be viewed at theaters everywhere. What lessons should we draw from the past few days?
My starting point is that a university is, first and foremost, an institution of learning. As such, a fundamental commitment of any university is to the principle that ideas and opinions that any of us might oppose or find unwelcome or even offensive should be openly and vigorously discussed, not suppressed. Without fearless inquiry and debate, carried out in a responsible manner, a university ceases to be “a marketplace of ideas,” an essential educational function.
It is also the responsibility of a university to nurture — via education and outreach — an ethos of civility, inclusion, and mutual respect. All members of the institution share in this responsibility. A university can regulate or restrict free expression only within the narrowly defined exceptions in First Amendment jurisprudence.
I take tremendous pride in the conduct of our students. MSA members were right to speak up for what they believe in. They deserve our admiration, not the scorn and vitriol they got on Facebook. I also applaud the student leaders of SEE for listening to the concerns of their fellow students. Their decision to reschedule the screening so a constructive dialogue could be held marks the exercise of free speech and a sensitivity to campus values of respect and inclusion.
I am proud of our College Republicans and College Democrats for working together on the screening and panel discussion of American Sniper. Working together, despite differences in philosophy and doctrine, is a laudable example for us all.
These are not simple issues we face. A look around the country — including just a few miles away in Baltimore — tells us that issues of race, human dignity, and human life itself remain unresolved. We continue to struggle with our differences, the vestiges of history, and the never-ending challenge of building a more perfect union.
Yet, I am hopeful. We have all seen the strength of character in the actions of University of Maryland students. They are our future.
Wallace D. Loh
President, University of Maryland