Two weeks ago, The Badger Herald, a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW), reported on the university’s apology to an African-American student offended by the content of a clip from the 1974 Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles, which an instructor showed in a training seminar run by UW’s Continuing Studies Department in November 2007.
Use of the clip—which contained several racial slurs—prompted a complaint from the student, which was reviewed by UW’s Office for Equity and Diversity. The training seminar was not offered this year. The Continuing Studies department chair wrote an apology to the student along with the instructor, who has not taught at UW since the incident.
News of UW’s apology to the student prompted editorials and letters in the Herald questioning exactly why the university felt compelled to apologize to the student and criticizing the UW administration’s failure to give the community any background or contextual information with which they may have been able to judge the episode for themselves. Today, the Herald published a letter by UW professor and FIRE friend Don Downs, who echoes these complaints and notes the potential chilling effect of such a move on campus speech:
Taken as a whole, "Blazing Saddles" makes a mockery of racism, using humor to get us to think more dynamically and creatively about race in America. Without a sufficient picture of what transpired, we are left to wonder if the university has not overreacted, missing a chance, once again, to make a difficult yet important point about intellectual freedom in class, and how such freedom can enhance our thinking about controversial and painful issues about which we need more thought, not less.
If Blazing Saddles can’t be shown in any classroom context for fear of reprisal, asks Downs, "just how free are we to talk honestly and in good faith about race at this university?" Hopefully the pressure from Downs and the Herald will elicit a better explanation of this incident than the university has so far seen fit to provide.