I recently read through the UM Got (hate) Mail Tumblr account, “a compilation of hate mail sent to Middle Eastern/North African/South Asian and other Muslim self-identified students at the University of Michigan,” and reaffirmed my belief reaffirmed that the online comments section is where humanity goes to die. The hate mail ranges from scapegoating accusations like, “you are the problem with America,” to such heartless and disheartening commands like, “Tell the assholes to stop blowing shit up and maybe they won’t get discriminated against” and, simply, “Go kill yourself.”

The vast majority of the hate mail is responding to the (failed) petition not to show Clint Eastwood’s film, “American Sniper,” at a University-sponsored UMix event this past Friday. The University first cancelled the film, but then E. Royster Harper, vice president of student life, reversed that decision, writing, “The initial decision to cancel the movie was not consistent with the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression.”

Reading all this hate mail makes me sad, angry and disgusted. But it also makes me curious: Do these people consider how their actions and their speech might incite even more hatred and violence against America?

It appears that part of America has become so narcissistic that it can’t even fathom how its words and actions might legitimately provoke people to respond with hatred. Freedom of speech means you can be an asshole publicly, but it doesn’t mean you can always be an asshole publicly with impunity.

We all know that it’s foolish to ask our federal government to be kinder to the rest of the world, but is it too much to ask that our citizens be kinder and more compassionate? We don’t even have to be kinder for the world’s sake; we should just be kinder for our own sake. Let’s defend ourselves by not provoking hatred and violence against us with hate speech. While you can post pictures of a shit-covered Quran or burning American flag — that is your right — you probably shouldn’t, because it incites hatred and sometimes violence.

Like Harper, the writers of the hate mail also use terms like “freedom of expression” and “free speech” quite cavalierly (e.g. “Fuck that Muslim girl who tried to ban American Sniper in Ann Arbor. This is America, we have freedom of speech here.”) The angry online commenters evidently believe, like Harper, that not showing “American Sniper” would have constituted a violation of free speech.

This uninformed free speech argument wouldn’t merit a response, except for the fact that it has recently proven so popular that it has been endorsed by our vice president of student life. Therefore given the demonstrated misunderstanding of free speech and what constitutes violations of it, we should clarify what it is and what it is not.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the making of any law abridging the freedom of speech. This is a restriction on the government. So, for example, if someone wrote an article denying the Holocaust and submitted it to a newspaper, and the newspaper wouldn’t print it for obvious moral reasons, the newspaper didn’t abridge that writer’s freedom of speech. Rather, the newspaper had the good moral sense not to publish filth. A violation of free speech would be if the writer did publish the article, and then the government arrested him.

Likewise, though the University is a public institution, it isn’t morally obligated to show any given film, just like a newspaper doesn’t have to print any given article. The University has every right to show or not show whatever movies it wants at UMix events. One can disagree with its reasons for showing or not showing a certain movie, just as one can disagree with a newspaper printing or not to print a certain article, but one can’t (legitimately) disagree by citing freedom of speech.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the University would have in fact stifled free expression by not showing “American Sniper.” Then, by that same logic, the University stifles free expression every time it shows one movie but not another. The counter-argument that distinguishes between cancelling the showing of “American Sniper” and simply choosing one movie or another (i.e. that the former constitutes a violation of free speech, whereas the second does not) holds no weight, because they ultimately have the same result: One movie is shown to the exclusion of every other.

But have the people citing free speech in this debate ever objected to the screening, or lack of screening, of any other film on campus? I’ve never heard of any other such objections during my three years here. That’s because so long as there is no challenge to the movements of power, there’s no problem for the powerful. Ideology manifests itself precisely in those moments when we aren’t thinking or debating but just doing. (The bias of power manifests itself in the selection of “American Sniper” for the UMix event over, say, “Timbuktu,” a new foreign film that has the audacity to depict North African Muslims as human beings.) When people, especially marginalized people, challenge power and spark a public debate — even on the tiny issue of what movie is shown at a UMix event — power comes down hard on them (e.g. the hate mail).

So it would appear that these supposed free speech advocates aren’t really as zealous about free speech as their rhetoric would suggest. In fact, many of them don’t appear to believe in free speech at all. The movies that further their political agenda must be shown, and if people object with petitions and/or thoughtful criticisms, those people ought to “get the fuck out.” So much for loving free speech.

In response to marginalized people exercising the right to free speech, the self-appointed freedom fighters, with no legitimate arguments available, resort to petty attacks on the marginalized people’s identities. By flaking dissidents with hate mail, powerful groups attempt to deter future dissent and protect their power. Though dissidents might initially react by being discouraged, they should note that power unwittingly betrays its own great insecurity and vulnerability when it reacts so severely to even the smallest challenge (e.g. the screening of a film at UMix).

When power stops responding to challenges to it by dissidents, that’s when hope is lost. Now is the time to keep resisting.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.

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