Theater professor James Miller didn’t intend to make a major First Amendment issue out of a poster on his office door, but his fandom of the television show Firefly turned into another example of universities showing just how weak their commitment to free speech can be.
Miller’s students recommended that he watch Firefly, a Joss Whedon sci-fi ‘space western’ that lasted just one season on Fox. Despite its limited television play, the series has cultivated a loyal fan-base and a host of spinoffs.
Miller expressed his fan-status by placing a poster on his office door with the following quote from the show:
“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.”
That’s when the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Chief of Police got involved.
UWS Chief of Police Lisa A. Walter determined that the poster ‘refer[red] to killing’ and could be ‘interpreted as a threat.’ She also advised Miller that he could face criminal charges if he left the poster up:
“If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct.”
Miller, in defense of his First Amendment rights, doubled down, placing a poster that said “WARNING: FASCISM” and depicted a face-masked person beating another on the ground with a baton.
Walter responded and explained that his speech was being censored because the new poster ‘depicts violence and mentions violence and death,’ citing the University’s ‘thread assessment team’ as having agreed.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a national campaign to not only support Miller, but also to make clear that speech such as Miller’s shouldn’t be censored — especially on the campus of a public university.
FIRE requested that UWS Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen end the censorship of Miller’s speech and apologize to him for threatening criminal charges:
“It is both shameful and absurd for UWS to suggest that campus community members are so impressionable and unreasonable that merely seeing a reference to violence on a poster will lead them to commit either actual violence or a substantial disruption of the campus,” FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. “The police and the threat assessment team are the true threats to freedom at UW–Stout.”
Adam Baldwin, who co-starred on Firefly, called national attention to the case made an important point about the University’s double standards on speech:
Baldwin (co-star of Firefly) wrote about Stout’s apparent double standard in censorship. Baldwin noted that earlier this year, Stout apparently had no problem with “Kill the Bill” posters based on the film Kill Bill, which depicted Uma Thurman with a sword and advocated against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill.
The University folded, announcing that they have reversed their decision to limit Miller’s speech and will develop a new protocol for dealing with similar cases.