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A teachable moment

Dear University of Maryland community:

Last week, Student Entertainment Events Productions (SEE), an independent student group on campus, announced its decision to postpone a screening of the film American Sniper that was scheduled for early May. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) had discussed with SEE their view that the film was anti-Muslim. SEE, already busily preparing for an upcoming major concert, elected to reschedule the screening until next fall in order to properly plan a post-film panel discussion.

Media sources then reported that UMD "cancelled" the movie. That UMD failed to uphold the basic right of freedom of expression. That UMD caved-in to a small number of students. We were deluged by phone calls and messages from across the country, almost unanimously outraged by the cancellation or postponement. Members of our faculty, staff, students and alumni, as well as members of our State's legislature, voiced their dismay with UMD's abridgment of this constitutional right. 

Perhaps most disheartening, MSA's Facebook page was filled with some of the most venomous, racist, and hateful messages imaginable. 

Today, two student groups, the College Republicans and College Democrats, announced they will be screening the film next Monday, May 4, at 6 pm, in the Hoff Theater. It will be followed by a panel discussion of the themes and issues raised by the film.

However, this was not merely a matter of scheduling on campus a film that can be viewed at theaters everywhere. What lessons should we draw from the past few days? 

My starting point is that a university is, first and foremost, an institution of learning. As such, a fundamental commitment of any university is to the principle that ideas and opinions that any of us might oppose or find unwelcome or even offensive should be openly and vigorously discussed, not suppressed. Without fearless inquiry and debate, carried out in a responsible manner, a university ceases to be "a marketplace of ideas," an essential educational function.

It is also the responsibility of a university to nurture—via education and outreach—an ethos of civility, inclusion, and mutual respect. All members of the institution share in this responsibility. A university can regulate or restrict free expression only within the narrowly defined exceptions in First Amendment jurisprudence. 

I take tremendous pride in the conduct of our students. MSA members were right to speak up for what they believe in. They deserve our admiration, not the scorn and vitriol they got on Facebook. I also applaud the student leaders of SEE for listening to the concerns of their fellow students. Their decision to reschedule the screening so a constructive dialogue could be held marks the exercise of free speech and a sensitivity to campus values of respect and inclusion. 

I am proud of our College Republicans and College Democrats for working together on the screening and panel discussion of American Sniper. Working together, despite differences in philosophy and doctrine, is a laudable example for us all.

These are not simple issues we face. A look around the country—including just a few miles away in Baltimore—tells us that issues of race, human dignity, and human life itself remain unresolved. We continue to struggle with our differences, the vestiges of history, and the never-ending challenge of building a more perfect union.

Yet, I am hopeful. We have all seen the strength of character in the actions of University of Maryland students. They are our future. 

Wallace D. Loh
University of Maryland