Decision to cancel film ignites campus free speech debate

Officials say 'American Sniper' made students feel unsafe

On Tuesday, the University of Michigan (UM) cancelled a showing of "American Sniper" in response to a student petition—and within 24 hours, the school was embroiled in controversy over free speech and censorship on campus.

Late Wednesday, the school reversed its decision, saying it will show "American Sniper" at its scheduled time and place.

But the events have reignited a debate about the limits of campus free speech.

Read more: Are safe spaces drowning out free speech on campus?

Prompted by a petition

It all started when UM's Center for Campus Involvement received a petition against its planned showing of "American Sniper" signed by more than 200 students, many of whom were part of the school's Muslim Student Association.

The Oscar-nominated film is a semi-fictionalized account of the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL with a reputation as the deadliest U.S. sniper ever. The film includes scenes of Kyle at war in Iraq. He is a controversial figure viewed by some as a hero and by others as a racist, reports Jake New for Inside Higher Ed.

"Although we respect the right to freedom of speech, we believe that with this right comes responsibility: responsibility of action, intention, and outcome," says the petition. It goes on to say that the film promotes "negative and misleading stereotypes" and "sympathizes with a mass killer."

After receiving the petition on Tuesday, the Center for Campus Involvement said it would replace "American Sniper" with the film "Paddington," an animated movie about a talking toy bear.

In a statement about its decision to cancel, the center wrote that the film "made students feel unsafe and unwelcome at our program."

But the cancellation also attracted student protests, a counter-petition signed by 100 students, and media attention. Even the UM football coach, Jim Harbaugh, tweeted a message of support for the film and for Kyle.

Ultimately, the university decided to reverse the cancellation and show the film at the previously planned venue.

Walking a fine line

The events come at a time when many in higher education are trying to find the right balance between the concerns of marginalized students and campus free speech, says New. Student protests have recently led administrators to cancel commencement addresses, concerts, and plays, he adds.

And just last month, higher ed experts debated whether the use of safe spaces interferes with free speech.

A showing of "American Sniper" also was cancelled last month at the University of Missouri at the request of a student (New, Inside Higher Ed, 4/9; CBS Detroit, 4/8; Thomason, "The Ticker," Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/8).

The takeaway: One university's decision to cancel the film "American Sniper," which was later reversed, reignited an ongoing debate about the limits of campus free speech.

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