A petition/open letter was sent around through social media to gather student signatures to send to CCI, in an attempt to convince it to not screen the movie. The idea behind the petition was rather simple: the film's portrayal of Iraqi citizens as "savages" was seen as particularly damaging and myopic, and considering the violent responses that the movie's release engendered from the general populace, Middle Eastern, North African, and Muslim students probably have good reason to feel uncomfortable about that movie's showing. The letter (which I unfortunately no longer have access to) affirmed that the screening would not make these students feel safe, nor welcome at UMix.
CCI then released a statement that recognized the students' petition and concerns, and said that the movie would not be screened. It didn't take long—nay, a day—for that to be reversed though, and why? Well:
The initial decision to cancel the movie was not consistent with the high value the University of Michigan places on freedom of expression and our respect for the rights of students to make their own choices in such matters.Huh, really. I love free speech, but this seems like a very fishy statement to me. Because apparently what the VPSL is saying is that the screening of American Sniper was an exercise of free speech. I wonder, whose? Was there an employee at CCI who thought that it would be a great Iraq War commentary? (Perhaps.) Was there someone at the Union who made a recommendation to show a soldier's account of the war because it added fresh perspective? (Perhaps.)
Or did CCI just propose showing the most grossing film of 2014, and an arguably critically well-received movie, because of its popularity? Now this is a much easier pill to swallow. But if this is actually the case—and I will be so
This didn't become a "free speech" issue until people started fighting back, and not actually for anyone in particular. Nobody's right was infringed by CCI deciding to not screen the movie. Nobody's freedom was being usurped, because the very people who were in power to show the movie, CCI, responded to a petition brought forth by the students it serves and made the decision to withdraw it on their own terms. And it is absolutely astounding that the irony of this situation should go unnoticed: the right to petition is directly protected by the First Amendment, and that success at changing a government's actions via petition should garner anger seems to miss the entire fucking point of why that right is given to the people in the first place!
So what in the world is this fight for? Oh, the right to "watch" the film, the right to "discuss" it, to "debate" it. The first "right", to "watch" something that the government itself chooses to show, or chooses not to show, and to which you have no financial claim to: that right does not exist. The "right" to "discuss" such a film, which would shown either by that government's discretion or by your right to "watch" it which, again, does not exist: thats not being infringed here, nor the right to debate it. Why? Because every student on this campus is perfectly at liberty to screen and discuss it all day and all night until they're blue in the face, and on university property to boot. But they do not have the right to demand the university show it for them.
There is no "free speech" problem here. The University made a decision to show a movie, a decision that was not based on an appeal to its own First Amendment rights, but on that movie's profit margin, and it is perfectly allowed to do that under law. And the University made a decision to then retract that decision, not because it can't screen it under the First Amendment—no, it may—but because as a body that has a choice to engage in speech it chose to not engage in that speech, at the behest of a respectful petition by members of its student body. And the Vice President of Student Life's decision to reverse that decision, on a vacuous pretense of violation of "freedom of expression" of literally nobody, is exactly as that foundation is: bull shit.
EDIT (09 April 2015, 10:10pm EST): so apparently the screening actually wasn't canceled, and instead CCI was planning on rescheduling it and having a panel discussion accompany it. So, yep, I'm just absurdly lost on where the statement from the VPSL came from here.