December 20th, 2002, is a date that lives in infamy to me and many of my fellow geeks. On that (presumably) dark and gloomy day, Fox aired the last episode of Joss Whedon’s brilliant space western Firefly. The impatient network canceled the show after barely half a season of episodes — aired in the wrong order, no less. With this reckless, senseless act all of my plans for the series — weekly Firefly parties, my planned Reaver Halloween costume, my letter-writing campaign to link up the cast members with their soul mates the Phenomenauts, my ambitious scale model of the statue of Jayne from Jaynestown — were dashed.
And just when these wounds were finally starting to heal, along come bureaucrats at the University of Wisconsin-Stout to tear them open again.
On September 12, 2011, UW-Stout theater professor James Miller posted this tribute to the captain of the star boat Serenity, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (once called “Captain Tight Pants” by the ship’s mechanic) on his office door.
Oh, Mal. This is classic: tough, macho, but also Mal’s way of saying that he is a man who plays fair. It’s also funny, in context, because the character probably didn’t really mean it. In my perfect world, the UW-Stout campus would have been so overwhelmed with the memory of the super-awesomeness of Firefly that the administration would have canceled classes so every student could study the DVD box set.
But that’s not exactly how it worked.
Like overzealous Alliance officers, UW-Stout administration officials just could not let Mal be free. Instead, they called the cops on Professor Miller to tear down the poster. Miller was contacted by Lisa Walter, the chief of police/director of parking services, and informed that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” She also warned the astounded professor that any future such posts would be removed and would cause him to be charged with disorderly conduct.
You don’t have to be a First Amendment lawyer to know that posting Mal’s quote or even that super-scary death-oriented quote from The Princess Bride is a far cry from any legal definition of disorderly conduct. And Miller, like a true browncoat, did not take this lying down. On September 16th he posted this:
Of course, that’s exactly what UW-Stout did. In a feat of intentional misunderstanding of the kind that is unfortunately all too common on campus, the university reinterpreted Professor Miller’s protest as being essentially pro-fascist and advocating violence. The police tore down this poster, too, with Chief Walter claiming this time that the problem was that the poster “depicts violence and mentions violence or death.” She went on to say that “it is believed that this posting also has a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat.” Seriously.
I am frequently impressed by the level of creativity people show in justifying their desire to quell criticism of themselves. This one deserves some kind of Rationalization of the Year award. Essentially, what Walter is saying is this: “I’ve chosen to understand your poster implying that my actions were reminiscent of evil governments that in the past have killed people to mean that you have announced your plan to kill people, as that interpretation works out well for me.”
These days, people are quick to uncritically evaluate any claim that someone else might be a threat for some reason and give leeway to the authorities accordingly. Those who read my writing already know of the case of Hayden Barnes, but here is an oldie but goodie on the abuse of “threat” rationales on campus. This rush to judgment is a bad habit, and here it’s easy to dismiss.
No one was threatened by the Firefly poster, and no reasonable person would understand the second poster to be anything other than a rebuke of Walter’s heavy-handed action in the first place. The university overreacted to a poster and then decided to double down rather than admit error when the professor decided to make fun of that overreaction.
Professor Miller has twice been censored in a way that the Constitution would never allow, he has been threatened with punishment, and he’s being investigated by the university’s threat assessment team. My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has written to protest, but so far UW-Stout has refused to back down. Miller faces a meeting on Friday with the dean to discuss the threat assessment team’s “concerns.”
I therefore call on the teeming masses of Firefly fans to stand up for free speech on campus, for Professor Miller, and for Mal Reynolds’s right to eternally kick ass according to his own code of honor. We Firefly fans are a passionate and tenacious bunch and there is nothing we can’t do together. Well, except get the series un-canceled. But here’s our chance to redeem ourselves! As Patrick Henry once more or less said: “Give Mal liberty or give me death!” Which would have, of course, made him guilty of disorderly conduct at UW-Stout.
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.