In my last Torch entry, I detailed how the Clint Eastwood-directed movie American Sniper, about Navy sniper Chris Kyle, has lately been a major cultural stumbling block on college campuses around the country. Many have argued that American Sniper encourages anti-Arab sentiment, such that it creates an unsafe campus environment for Arab and Arab-American students—an argument that says far more about desires, if not demands, for round-the-clock intellectual comfort than it does about any physical danger the mere screening of the film presents.
It looked like things were heading in that direction at the University of Maryland. At UMD, a screening of American Sniper had been planned for this month by Student Entertainment Events (SEE), UMD’s student-run campus programming department. After student outcry similar to that seen at other campuses, SEE indefinitely postponed the screening. Quickly, however, UMD’s College Republicans and College Democrats stepped up where SEE had slipped; the two student organizations will co-present a screening and panel discussion about the themes and controversies of American Sniper this Monday.
UMD president Wallace Loh—who has handled himself well on other recent controversies testing UMD’s commitment to free speech—lauded the groups for coming together on the film, saying, “Working together, despite differences in philosophy and doctrine, is a laudable example for us all.” Ben Kramer, president of UMD’s College Democrats, told The Diamondback student newspaper:
We wanted to make sure on this campus we let students see the movie, but also that we created a forum for students to talk about why the movie is controversial and that the forum is a warm environment for people who might feel alienated by the film[.]
As I said in my previous entry, it’s not always the best sign that students should feel the need to carve out such forums. Debate and discussion, of course, are what college campuses are made for, but the worry persists that college students don’t quite trust their capacities enough to air controversial ideas except in carefully controlled environments. This, as I wrote last week, “presumes that students are owed an apology or consolation should they have to encounter anything emotionally difficult.” The post-college world, needless to say, rarely feels any such obligations.
This does not change the fact that on the college campus, more speech is far preferable to less, and certainly to none at all. It’s good to see students at UMD recognizing and acting on that principle. Hopefully more will do the same.