Until this week, I had heard UMix discussed on campus probably twice. The first was from a member of Res Staff advertising the University’s program for substance-free Friday night fun to me and my freshmen peers. The second was from some friends who went in search of free food, only to find it had all been eaten up before they arrived.
This week, UMix was catapulted out of arguable irrelevance and into the national media spotlight after becoming central to a controversy that attracted national attention. I’m fairly confident that an alcohol-free college party has never generated so much buzz.
It all started with a group of about 200 students, who signed a letter saying that “American Sniper,” scheduled to be shown at the event, promotes damaging stereotypes about Middle Eastern and North African students. The Center for Campus Involvement — which hosts UMix — responded by cancelling the screening, and justified their decision in a Facebook statement that said, “Student reactions have clearly articulated that this is neither the venue nor the time to show this movie.” They also planned to hold a separate event to view and discuss the film.
The decision generated uproar from campus conservatives — and one particularly pissed-off Fox News pundit — who felt the decision limited students’ ability to freely discuss the topics portrayed in the film. They filed an ultimately-successful counter-petition to reschedule the UMix showing.
I’m going to preface the rest of my column by saying that I firmly believe that Chris Kyle, the decorated Navy SEAL central to the film, is a hero. His work — both as a soldier fighting for the United States and as a philanthropist committed to helping veterans readjust to life after the war — was selfless, praiseworthy and brave. But I have never seen “American Sniper,” and this column is not about the film’s portrayal of Kyle or any cultural group.
It’s about the endemic debate about free speech on campus.
The debate intensified when the school failed to sanction a department head for writing a column stating that she hated Republicans. Some of the same students who called for the professor’s removal for this discriminatory speech later took to Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and of course, Fox News, to claim that the University’s Inclusive Language Campaign — which simply encouraged students to avoid tossing about words like “fag” and “retard” — was a freedom of speech violation.
Now, those same students have drawn even more negative attention to the University for rescheduling a controversial film, labeling it a transgression against their freedom of thought and expression, and an exercise of control by the University “thought police.” “Warning: Liberal Thought Police” also appeared on a sign advertising an event hosted by the Young Americans for Freedom earlier this semester.
Though the “American Sniper” dispute is resolved, it represents a great opportunity to explore what “thought police” really means, how it applies at our school and freedom of speech more generally.
The idea of university “thought police” probably comes from UWM Post v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, a 1991 Federal Court case. UWM Post struck down the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s ban on “racist or discriminatory” speech that was directed at an individual and created an “intimidating, hostile or demeaning environment,” according to the case. The majority opinion noted, “the suppression of speech, even where the speech’s content appears to have little value and great costs, amounts to governmental thought control.”
I’d have to agree.
Most of the recent free speech controversies have surrounded efforts (or lack of efforts) by the University to discourage speech that lessens the discomfort that minority students may feel on campus. In my view, that’s a worthy goal. But limiting the content of speech to achieve it? I think that’s a pretty bad idea — plus it’s illegal anyway under the UWM Post decision, among others.
But that’s not what the school has been doing, and claims that it has are unfounded. The Inclusive Language Campaign comes the closest to the “governmental thought control” described in the UWM Post case. The Campaign encouraged, not mandated, students to use more respectful words, effectually attempting to influence the content of speech, but not control it.
But rescheduling “American Sniper?” That doesn’t even come close. The University didn’t ban the film. They simply rescheduled its showing for a time and place decidedly more appropriate than UMix.
UMix is the University’s big Friday night event to help students “interact responsibly,” according to the CCI website. The other activities featured alongside “American Sniper” include making a Build-A-Bear, playing bingo and decorating picture frames.
The students who petitioned the University to reschedule the film argued that removing it from UMix programming would stifle dialogue on the subject. I’ve never been to UMix, but I seriously question how much serious, thoughtful debate could be reasonably expected to occur at a Friday night arts-and-crafts party.
The University can limit when and where students speak — lecture would be a nightmare if they didn’t. But students limit each other’s speech far more often. Have you ever tried to talk politics at a party? At least one person probably told you to stop — or at least that has been my experience.
But few people would argue that constitutes a speech violation. In social situations, it’s just accepted that there’s a time and a place for heavy, controversial discussion … and that time or place isn’t a Friday night hangout.
The University has rescheduled “American Sniper,” and it will be shown at tonight’s UMix as originally scheduled. But that doesn’t mean we should stop discussing the issue. Fostering a safe, happy educational environment for all students and respecting the value of free speech are often two conflicting aims. Determining which balance between those two goals will be reflected on campus is likely to provoke ongoing, contentious debate.
The University has made up its mind on the movie, but this issue was never really about the movie. Rather, it’s about determining the type of school we want to live and learn at. Hopefully, when this issue resurfaces, students will take time to define the roles they want inclusivity and free speech to play in our campus community. It’s a decision that will take meaningful, thoughtful discussion, and it’s one that we should make for ourselves.
Victoria Noble can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.