The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is one of America’s most sacred freedoms and our public universities often among its staunchest defenders. But at the University of Wisconsin-Stout (UWS), it seems this sacred freedom is in the eye of the beholder.
UWS theater professor Dr. James Miller is relatively new to the short-lived, now cult hit TV series “Firefly.” Some of his students are loyal fans and asked Dr. Miller to check it out for himself. He liked it enough to hang a Firefly poster on his office door. Given its remote location in the theater wing, where mostly only theater students would see it, who would have expected the poster to cause such a firestorm?
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports:
On September 12, 2011, Professor Miller posted on his office door an image of Nathan Fillion in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly and a line from an episode: “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.” On September 16, UWS Chief of Police Lisa A. Walter notified Miller that she had removed the poster because it “refer[s] to killing.” After Miller replied, “respect my first amendment rights,” Walter wrote that “the poster can be interpreted as a threat.” Walter also threatened Miller with criminal charges: “If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct.”
In response to Walter’s censorship, Miller placed a new poster on his office door on the 16th. The poster read “Warning: Fascism” and mocked, “Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.”
Walter escalated the absurdity. On September 20, she wrote that this poster, too, had been censored because it “depicts violence and mentions violence and death” and was expected to “be constituted as a threat.” She added that UWS’s “threat assessment team,” in consultation with the university general counsel’s office, had made the decision. College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Interim Dean Raymond Hayes then scheduled a meeting with Miller about “the concerns raised by the campus threat assessment team.”
The university has since canceled the meeting as of last Friday, but it hasn’t backed off its position.
Sorensen, however, dug a deeper hole. Together with Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes, Sorensen defended UWS’s censorship in an email to all faculty and staff on September 27. The three administrators wrote that “the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. That is why they were removed.”
To understand the importance of this as a First Amendment issue, one needs to closely examine what happened. A university’s Chief of Police/Parking Enforcement Officer, ignorant of the context of the quote, took it upon herself to remove not one but two posters without ever asking their context or purpose. The professor honestly expected his First Amendment rights would not be infringed, but the school’s Chancellor cowered behind bureaucratic zero tolerance policies and did just that.
Whether or not you agree with how the professor responded, the police chief clearly overreacted to something she misinterpreted. You can read the full exchange of those emails at FIRE. Nothing about the poster of a fictional TV Space Captain is intended to “cause others to fear for their safety”; in fact, it is the opposite of a threat.
Dr. Miller sent the administration the relevant clip from Firefly’s pilot episode Serenity. The context of the quote is an homage to fair play and a code of honor that obviously prefers non-violence.
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This is precisely the issue with freedom of speech; words are subjective and can be interpreted differently by separate individuals. Sometimes this is done unintentionally, sometimes with malice, which is why the act of deciding what’s NOT free speech is ripe for abuse. The UWS administration’s stated desire to “promote a campus environment that is free from threats of any kind–both direct and implied” may be well-meaning, but its meaning amounts to nothing. How does one set a universal standard to determine what is an implied threat or in what context speech may “refer to violence and/or harm”? As Dr. Miller pointed out in his email response to police chief Lisa Walter, would this also apply to “a poster from Hamlet? Or a news clipping about Hockey players that commit violent murder?”
When asked if he knew of any other examples of such posters or signs on campus, Dr. Miller replied that while he wasn’t aware of any prior attempts at censorship, a “Kill Bill” poster from the popular Quentin Tarantino film was prevalent on campus earlier in the year. Some quick research finds the poster was actually a parody of the Kill Bill movie, as part of a campus-wide protest held in February against Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill.
Oddly enough, police chief Walter was not at all concerned with the reference to killing or to the weapon of violence depicted in those posters. In fact, she was quoted in this article at the time as being rather complimentary of the activities.
“The neat part of working in a university is that folks get to have their voices heard, and we try to make sure that it’s done in a manner that’s orderly and doesn’t disrupt the rest of the operations too much,” she said.
Walter also pointed out that the university’s union officers are not included in the exemption Walker provided to other law enforcement officers, firefighters and the State Patrol.
“He did not exempt UW police, Capitol police and, I believe, DNR wardens,” she said. “They will lose their ability to negotiate and have a union negotiate other work-related — other than salary. If the bill goes through, they will be without a contract — and without a union — on March 15.”
Is this because the police chief was not only overseeing security at the protest but also voicing her vested political interest in the highly controversial issue at hand? It seems clear that she was immersed in the context of that poster.
Words are subjective, indeed.
American Universities and colleges today are now, by design, overwhelmingly leftist in their belief systems and political activities. Students and faculty alike frequently glorify monstrous leftists like Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara. To some, they are socialist revolutionary heroes, while to others their image alone is testimony of mass murder and oppression.
When Ward Churchill was fired from his job as Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2007 for engaging in research misconduct, scholars insisted that Churchill was singled out for his political views, most notably his statements about 9/11 in which he “referred to the ‘technocrats’ working at the World Trade Center as ‘little Eichmanns.‘” There continues to be an outpouring of support for Churchill from the academic community, many of whom have stressed that Academic Freedom must be staunchly defended.
Whither tolerance and intellectual diversity?
The University of Wisconsin-Madison was recently ordered by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to pay nearly $500,000 in legal costs to a student group that claimed its First Amendment rights were violated when the student government rejected a portion of its funds because they were earmarked for religious worship. Badger Catholic, a student Catholic group that conducts various religious and spiritual activities on and off campus, sued the university, which claimed that funding some of the group’s activities would “amount to an illegal endorsement of religion.” The Appeals Court disagreed with the University and the Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case. It’s been hailed as a victory for freedom of speech and religious expression on college campuses. $500K was lost because, rather than protecting the fundamental rights of its students, the school chose to discriminate against their activities purely because of the group’s religious beliefs.
While the flap over the Firefly poster may seem trivial, it is anything but. This incident and UWS’s ego-driven, bureaucratic response provides a teachable moment. It should make us pause and think about how easily our freedoms can erode, in the arbitrary name of protecting others’ feelings.
It’s one thing to ensure that students and faculty are physically safe, but when we surrender to the Wordsmiths what may or may not offend someone or make them uncomfortable, we are helping to pave our own Road to Hell.
“Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.” – Mal Reynolds, Captain: Space Boat Serenity