Viewpoint: A collective response on the screening of 'American Sniper'

BY A COALITION OF CONCERNED STUDENTS

Published April 9, 2015

We, as University student organizations representing a broad spectrum of the campus student community, support the free speech rights of all students to view whatever movies they may want to see. But we are saddened and disappointed by the University’s decision to show “American Sniper” this Friday at UMix. The statement made last night by E. Royster Harper, vice president of student life, demonstrates a complete disregard and shocking lack of concern for marginalized students and the University’s obligation to ensure their safety on this campus.

The film was originally meant to be screened as part of campus programming to offer “entertainment and fun.” It was clearly outlined in an open letter by self-identified Muslim and/or Middle Eastern and North African students and allies that the film is nowhere near entertaining and, in fact, ennobles the dehumanization and systematic racism against the aforementioned communities. As a result of the expression of student distress at such a callous choice of “entertainment,” the screening was changed to another date, to be followed by an appropriate panel discussion in order to critically address the wide range of perspectives on the many controversial issues presented in the film. This was accepted, and even welcomed, by many students as a productive forum for dialogue. However, the University has gone back on its promise and reestablished the original screening of the film stating the change “was a mistake.”

The mistake, however, is in further marginalizing the voices of already marginalized students who expressed safety concerns, and who reasonably have such concerns, based on the recent targeted assassinations of Muslim students at another university. Calling it a mistake to have accommodated reasonable student concerns about a film that directly nurtures an atmosphere of hate and bias and acts of violence expressing hate and bias is harmful to this campus and especially devastating to its minority student groups. It is the University’s responsibility to facilitate an inclusive and effective way to protect the personal security of the Muslim and MENA student community, by providing a forum for the many different voices speaking out about the film. It has failed to do so — under the guise of “free speech.” Instead, the University’s response has protected free speech in a manner that silences voices that do not comply with the dominant narrative surrounding these issues, by actually fostering a poisonously fearful environment for the free expression of Muslim and/or MENA students. Do we not have a right to the same free speech to protest this film? Once again, our communities have been pushed aside in an attempt to preserve the University’s public image.

In the wake of the media attention garnered by the issue, students who were not directly involved in the initiative but self-identify as part of Muslim and/or MENA communities on campus have received threatening messages and e-mails with Islamophobic and racist content. Comments that tell students to “go back to where they came from,” to focus their student organizations’ efforts on “condemning terrorism” and to stop “attacking America for its freedom” are evidence of the hateful ideas movies like “American Sniper” perpetuate. We will provide the University administration with copies of these threatening messages that followed immediately in the wake of the decision to cancel the more structured showing of this film that we had accepted as an accommodation of the free speech rights of all concerned.

It is telling that the University’s response failed to mention or emphasize the safety of Muslim and/or MENA students on campus. The University continually commends itself on its inclusivity and diversity campaigns, yet amid personal attacks on its students, remains silent. By failing to address the real effects students face by voicing their discomfort and challenging dominant narratives, the University affirms the hate-filled messages students received. The University’s silence is disappointing and hurtful, and proves that the safety of minorities, and their right to free speech, is not as important as a movie screening.

Though we are drained from the lack of support the University has exhibited toward our communities, we will continue to call for the University to embody its principles of diversity and inclusion. We ask that you reinstate the structured showing of this film, allowing post-film discussion of its implications, in a setting that does not characterize this film as “entertainment,” and that future administrative decisions protect students and create a campus climate that is safe in all of its spaces for student minorities as well as the majority.

Students Allied for Freedom and Equality
Muslim Students’ Association
Middle East and Arab Network
Sikh Student Association
Migrant and Immigrant Rights Advocacy
Jewish Voice for Peace
Students for Choice
Doors of Opportunity
Michigan Pakistanis — MPak
Humanity First
Jews Allied for Social Justice
United Asian American Organizations Executive Board
Shakti
MuJew — Muslim Jewish Interfaith Dialogue
Feminist Forum
Diversity Forum
South Asian Awareness Network
Human Rights Through Education
Arab Students’ Association
Lebanese Students’ Association
Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival
Michigan Latin@ Assembly
African Students Association
Islamic Society of Ahl-ul-Bayt
Awaken Ann Arbor
Michigan Women of Color Collective

LSA students Saher Rathur, Tahany Alsabahi, Tala Dahbour, Sumeyye Korkaya, and Nour Soubani in collaboration with other students on behalf of a coalition of concerned students.