The Badger Herald reported yesterday (“UW apologizes for showing film with racial slurs,” Oct. 15) that a black student objected to clips from “Blazing Saddles” shown at a recent “training seminar.” Students reading this story would ideally glean a specific understanding of the circumstances to determine whether or not an apology from the university was appropriate. One might hope for some better reporting from the Badger Herald.
From the BH coverage alone, we know exactly nothing about the relevant training seminar — whether or not the course was offered for academic credit and how the instructor hoped to relate the material to “Blazing Saddles.” We have no idea whether “Blazing Saddles” was shown just for kicks, so to speak, or whether the clips were intended to highlight seminar material. The answers to all these questions, of course, are crucial for passing judgment. There are things you can say in a university classroom (or academic context), which would be unprotected in an employment/training environment. (Education, as an essential function, offends people with great regularity.) My guess is that the training seminar was employment-related, not for academic credit and that the university’s apology was thus appropriate.
But failure to specify these things effectively primes our campus for an extraordinary chilling effect. What if the WUD Film Committee wanted to show “Blazing Saddles” as part of “Mel Brooks Month?” What if an Afro-American Studies professor wanted to incorporate short clips from the film into a seminar on comedic representations of race relations? What if a First Amendment class began with a montage of potentially offensive clips from numerous controversial sources, “Blazing Saddles” included? The university is hinting that in all these situations, we might do well to show restraint. By reporting so little of this major story, the BH is complicit in this chilling effect. The university is not here to pass judgment on “Blazing Saddles” and apologize for every racially insensitive movie in the world — and students are out-of-line if they demand that level of groveling. In this case, UW should only note that showing “Blazing Saddles” was inappropriate at this particular training seminar. And in an ideal world, administrators would take this opportunity to re-affirm academic freedom and clarify the specifics of the situation.
It is the nature of our administrators to leave students wondering whether most offensive speech is unprotected and condemnable. Usually our campus press does a better job.
UW senior, political science