Hecklers Try To Veto University Screening Of ‘American Sniper;’ May Find Themselves Watching ‘Paddington Bear’ Instead

The University of Michigan has succumbed to a heckler’s veto, mistaking an alternate point of view for the only point of view, and shutting down legitimate speech in response.

The Center for Campus Involvement announced Tuesday afternoon they would cancel a planned showing of “American Sniper” at UMix following a student petition over the depiction of certain communities in the film.

Notably, the students opposed to this screening didn’t do any of the following:

  • Protest at the showing.
  • Offer a contrasting point of view, either by hosting a movie more closely aligned with their worldview or by asking to be allowed to provide some sort of rebuttal before or after the screening.
  • Note that they disapproved of the screening and leave it at that.
  • Write letters to the editor of the campus newspaper or any other related journalistic entity.

No. They chose to shut down the screening by circulating a petition that described how hurt their feelings were that the university hadn’t consulted with every last student before choosing which film to screen.

“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.”

1/4 – would not recommend

The Center for Campus Involvement immediately folded and offered its apologies to everyone it inadvertently offended with its movie selection.

“Student reactions have clearly articulated that this is neither the venue nor the time to show this movie,” the statement read. “We deeply regret causing harm to members of our community, and appreciate the thoughtful feedback provided to us by students.”

“Harmed” how? By offering a movie no one on campus was obligated to watch? It wasn’t a mandatory event and those offended by the movie had several options available, most of which didn’t involve ensuring no one on campus could see the movie.

In what would appear to be a dig at the “victims” infantilization-by-proxy of the entire student body, but is more likely due to a limited selection of last-minute offerings (guaranteed not to result in a swift petitioning), the CCI decided to screen “Paddington Bear” instead. For a student body composed of 18-23 year olds.

Howard Wasserman, writing at PrawfsBlog, wonders where the notion of “counter-speech” has disappeared to — the long-held belief that the best weapon against “offensive” speech is more speech, not less. He posits there are a few reasons we see this so infrequently exercised on campus: It’s hard. It sometimes doesn’t work. Restrictive campus speech rulesfree speech zones, permits, etc. — make it almost impossible to mobilize counter-speech efforts.

But the big one is this: people tend to take the easiest route — shouting someone down — and many campuses are quick to indulge those engaging in this behavior. Wasserman quotes Floyd Abrams:

“Surely, this is the best evidence yet that a speech-destroying storm is sweeping across American campuses. The students who seek to ban speech have much to learn but a university that yields to their demands can hardly be trusted to teach them.”

There may be hope for Michigan’s CCI. Sometime during the night following its capitulation, it rediscovered its spine and respect for free speech. This statement arrived the following day:

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.

And, as a concession to those with nothing better to do and/or still offended by the “American Sniper” screening, the CCI still offering a film targeted at the 10-and-under crowd.

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.

So, if the hecklers aren’t interested in staying home and brooding about their failed veto, they’re more than welcome to sit through “Paddington” — something guaranteed to be as blandly inoffensive as a documentary on vanilla ice cream. Or maybe those so thoroughly offended by this optional event might take this opportunity to actually engage in some speech of their own, rather than (virtually, via Google Docs) shouting down the speech of others.

And maybe the next time this sort of situation arises, the university won’t be so swift to grant all of the credibility to a small number of complainers — something far too many schools do by default.

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