University of Wisconsin retreats from censorship

posted at 2:05 pm on October 5, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Readers probably recall that I am a big fan of the short-lived series Firefly, as well as its excellent film continuation Serenity.  I’m also a big fan of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has fought speech codes that restrict both students and faculty on college campuses for years.  Both express values of free speech and individual rights, but I didn’t expect there ever to be a connection between the two.  However, when a University of Wisconsin campus took action against a theater professor for hanging a Firefly poster in his office, FIRE and Firefly stars Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion swung into action — and won:

Under pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), national media, and actors Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, the University of Wisconsin-Stout (Stout) has reversed its censorship of theater professor James Miller’s poster featuring a line from Fillion’s character in Joss Whedon’s television series Firefly. Campus police had threatened Miller with criminal disorderly conduct charges, and he was reported to the “threat assessment team.” After Stout censored his second poster, which stated, “Warning: Fascism,” Miller came to FIRE for help.

“FIRE is pleased that UW-Stout has decided to abandon its previous position and reopen the door to free speech and common sense on its campus,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “This victory would not have been possible without the outpouring of support from people across the country on news sites, blogs, and social media. FIRE would especially like to thank Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Neil Gaiman, and my fellow Firefly fans.”

So what did Miller post that was so dangerous that he needed a “threat assessment” from the university?  The poster showed Fillion in a pose with a quote from an episode of Firefly:

Baldwin — a friend of mine — wrote a lengthy response to UWS’ absurdity at Big Hollywood yesterday (along with his co-writer Liberty Chick), explaining that the context of the quote actually means something quite different than the hysterics presumed:

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.

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?”

But the story got even more absurd. After being ordered to take down the Firefly poster, Miller replaced it with this:

That brought an escalation from UWS:

On September 16, Stout 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 of “disorderly conduct” if he posted any similar poster.

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.”

Astoundingly, Walter escalated the absurdity. On September 20, she wrote that this poster, too, had been censored as a “threat” because it “depicts violence and mentions violence and death.” She added that Stout’s “threat assessment team” 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.”

Well, Adam found a bit of irony in the target selection (pardon the pun) of UWS and Walter.  You see, during the debate over the Scott Walker bill that limited collective bargaining for most public employee unions to wages only, this poster was seen on campus without any attempt to consider it a specific threat:

After FIRE, Fillion, and Adam got involved, UWS Chancellor Charles Sorensen reversed Walter’s decision, declaring that Miller’s poster didn’t constitute a threat or a disruption.  Furthermore, Sorensen will now stage workshops and forums on the application of the First Amendment on campuses.  That’s a significant step in the right direction, and one that would not have happened without the public pressure from FIRE, Fillion, and Adam.

I asked Adam for a reaction to the decision:

I am heartened and encouraged by the outpouring of support from the “Firefly/Serenity” community. It remains a tragic multi-generational crime that Leftism’s educational malpractices have so perverted our nation’s educational system that it becomes necessary for an American university to convene training seminars on the First Amendment. God bless FIRE and free thinkers everywhere for shining their lights.

Adam also sent this quote from Nathan Fillion:

“There are times we must try hard to find meaning. I understand that. I don’t understand when we try hard to find malice.”

Congratulations.  It’s good to see the Browncoats win one — in real life.

Update:  I neglected to mention the excellent Liberty Chick as a co-writer on the BH post.  I’ve added that above.  Great work!

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