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Can criticism go too far?

"Fahrenheit 9/11" director Michael Moore speaks at UVSC on Wednesday.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" director Michael Moore speaks at UVSC on Wednesday.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

The hubbub over Michael Moore's appearance at Utah Valley State College this week was about (in alphabetical order): academic freedom, community values, democracy, free speech, impressionable minds, money, politics, propaganda, taxes and truth. That's a tall order for a speech delivered by a man in a baseball cap, but in fact Moore has raised complex issues as well as hackles with his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" and his visit to UVSC.

At the core of the monthlong debate over Moore's sold-out appearance Wednesday was what might be called the ethics of dissent and its attendant questions: What kind of dissent is acceptable? When and from what sources? Is it ethical to speak out against an ongoing war and a wartime president? Is it ethical to prevent unpopular opinions from being heard? What if you think those opinions have distorted the truth?

"Fahrenheit 9/11" takes a critical view of President Bush's 2000 election, his ties to the Saudi royal family and his decision to go to war with Iraq. Earlier this fall, UVSC's student government invited Moore to speak on campus, an invitation that generated hundreds of letters to the editor, a petition to recall student body leaders and to cancel the event, and the Oct. 11 appearance of conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity as an antidote to Moore's liberal ideas.

Some people don't believe student fees should have been used to pay for the visit (the cost is about $50,000 when transportation costs are factored in; about $35,000 was raised in ticket sales to offset these costs), and earlier this week two people filed a lawsuit to prevent the college from paying Moore. Some critics don't believe his rhetoric has a place at a state school in a conservative city like Orem, and some find his documentary false and incendiary. "Why not ask Osama bin Laden to speak next year?" asked one Deseret Morning News reader. "Treason," argued another about Moore's views.

Dissent, particularly during a time of heightened tension about the war and the presidential election, creates discomfort. But that's precisely why it needs to be spoken and heard, says Reece Newman, president of the newly formed discussion group Questioning Minds, which meets monthly in Salt Lake City. "My view is that the mainstream press covered the war in Iraq with official statements from the U.S. government," Newman says. "And they presented it without being critical of it."

In a democratic society — the kind of society America is fighting to bring to Iraq — dissent is "noble," says professor David Keller, director of UVSC's Center for the Study of Ethics. The more perspectives we add to any political discourse, he says, "the closer we can move to the truth, because no one person or group has all the truth." In a democracy, he argues, a university — even one located in one of the most conservative counties in the country — has a responsibility to "facilitate dialogue."

And voters, too, have an ethical responsibility, he says. Being a good citizen means "being engaged in the political process and having an opinion on complex issues, which means knowing both sides of a debate, not just one side."

"In the current political arena, that means knowing what 'pre-emptive war' and 'unilateralism' mean and having an opinion on it and going to the voting booth as an informed citizen. I think it's very important to talk about those issues, especially on the eve of a presidential election."

But the timing is exactly what worries Gayle Ruzicka of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. Ruzicka, who has not seen "Fahrenheit 9/11" because of its "R" rating, thinks it would be fine if Moore came to UVSC after the election — "after the young people had time to decide for themselves who to vote for. . . . These are young people who are easily impressed. I don't think 12 days is enough time for them to go find out the truth."

Dissent does have its limits, says UVSC's Keller. He draws the line at "hate speech and violence" and says a university should not invite a speaker such as white supremacist David Duke. Others would draw the line at Michael Moore, whose documentary they view as sheer propaganda.

Documentaries, says BYU film student Steven Greenstreet, have become the soapbox of his generation. Greenstreet is currently shooting a film about the uproar at UVSC and says the upside of the debate is that college students on both sides, often described as apathetic, are proving themselves passionate about their values.

A documentary, one might suppose, should be an even-handed, unbiased look at a topic, but in reality it's impossible for the filmmaker not to have some point of view, says documentary filmmaker and BYU professor April Chabries. "It starts with a choice of topics, how you shoot and who you shoot."

It's not unethical to present only one side of an argument, she says. Still, the documentaries she prefers are the ones "where I walk out feeling I don't know what to think about that issue." Moore, on the other hand, often simplifies everything, she says. "Michael Moore is doing a 'call-to-action' film. He wants to get people upset about the war. And it's hard to make a call-to-action film and make it complex."

It is Moore's methodology, not his ideology, that bothers UVSC English professor Paul Tanner. Yes, he says, universities should bring both liberals and conservatives to campus to discuss their views. But "I disagree with bringing to our campus anyone whose use of free speech has abandoned the ethical assumptions that make free speech valuable.

"We teach our students an ethical level of presentation," he argues, that includes not quoting out of context and not misrepresenting what someone says. Moore's "mix of truths, half-truths and counter-truths muddies the waters" and prevents real communication, he says.

It is this issue of "truth" that is knottiest of the issues raised by Moore's film and his visit.

Several documentaries — "Fahrenhype 9/11" and "Celsius 41.11" among others — have dissected Moore's movie and countered with their versions. But these, as well as "Fahrenheit 9/11," are all interpretations and approximations of the truth — as is every political ad for Bush and John Kerry, as well as the speeches of Sean Hannity, a new documentary attacking Kerry's anti-Vietnam War protests and, it turns out, the Bush administration's reading of intelligence reports and the decision to wage war.

"I have seen 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' and I believe Moore is irresponsible at points in his presentation of certain facts," says Brian Birch, director of religious studies at UVSC. "But the same charge of irresponsibility can certainly be leveled against the Bush administration with regard to weapons of mass destruction, the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, etc."

Like most Utah County residents, Birch is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fellow members, he said, may see parallels between early church history and the uproar over Moore's visit. "It would be wise for Latter-day Saints to examine their own history with regard to these issues," he says. "They were persecuted and maligned for promoting unconventional ideas at odds with the 'community values' of their neighbors. In fact, the attempt to preserve the 'social order' was a common argument repeatedly used to persecute the Mormons. Although the comparison is not perfect, there is a rich irony at work here for those who are intolerant of minority voices."


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com