Browncoats—1, Alliance—0: College changes tune on censorship of ‘Firefly’ poster

Greg Lukianoff President, FIRE
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Last week I wrote about a remarkable case of censorship at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Stout Professor James Miller was threatened with “disorderly conduct” for posting outside his office door a quote from the beloved, yet short-lived sci-fi TV show Firefly and a second poster in which he mocked the college for its heavy-handedness. The fact that a college would overreact like this, violate the First Amendment, and then treat criticism of its handling of the case like a threat to the whole community was not really surprising to me. At this point in my career, I am well-acquainted with remarkable abuses of power by campus administrators. Earlier this week, my organization came out with a short video about five such abuses that make this case seem tame. Indeed, it’s not even the craziest overreaction to a wall post at a university in Wisconsin. That honor still goes to Marquette University, which censored a quote by humorist Dave Barry.

What was surprising about this case, though, was the chancellor’s decision to dig in and defend the university’s decision in the face of widespread ridicule in the media, the wrath of thousands of devoted Firefly fans, and the growing discontent of the university community (many copies of Miller’s second poster were reposted on campus in a show of solidarity).

But on Tuesday night things took a turn for the better. Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, Provost Julie Furst-Bowe, and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes sent this statement to all students, faculty, and staff at Stout:

The recent discussion resulting from the removal of two posters hanging outside the door of a University of Wisconsin-Stout professor in Harvey Hall has raised serious First Amendment concerns, both on campus and across the country.

It is important to note that the posters were not removed to censor the professor in question. Rather, they were removed out of legitimate concern for the violent messages contained in each poster and the belief that the posters ran counter to our primary mission to provide a campus that is welcoming, safe and secure.

In retrospect, however, it is clear that the removal of the posters — although done with the best intent — did have the effect of casting doubt on UW-Stout’s dedication to the principles embodied in the First Amendment, especially the ability to express oneself freely. As many people have pointed out in the days since this issue surfaced, a public university must take the utmost care to protect this right.

Therefore, UW-Stout has reconsidered its decision to remove the two posters from outside the professor’s office, meaning he can display them if he so chooses.

The administration also is reviewing its procedures for handling these kinds of cases, and a new protocol is being developed in the hopes that a similar situation can be avoided in the future. Furthermore, the UW-Stout Center for Applied Ethics will schedule workshops and/or forums during this academic year on First Amendment rights and responsibilities in higher education.

For more than a century, UW-Stout has embraced the First Amendment, and we now reaffirm our support for the First Amendment rights for all of our students, faculty and staff.

It’s about time.

While this certainly counts as a vindication of the principles of free speech, the statement is hardly perfect. First of all, Miller deserves both an apology and his posters back (the campus police have not returned them). Yes, Professor Miller got angry when the campus police chief not only removed his posters but also invoked “threats” and “disorderly conduct” to justify the school’s actions, but nothing about Miller’s reaction makes the university’s behavior constitutional. I would have been angry, too, especially given how he was singled out when other posters with actual violent imagery were left alone. (Check out this poster posted by a professor of a Dilbert cartoon in which one character punches right through the head of another, or this one featuring Uma Thurman brandishing a samurai sword and the word “kill,” which appeared on campus during the debate over the Wisconsin budget bill. And, yes, both posters are and should be protected speech as well.)

Second, the statement maintains that the university understood the posters to be threats. As for the first poster, when you read it and think about it for even a minute it’s clear that it was the opposite of a threat (here is a little more about the context of the quote). So, this claim is possibly true if university officials can’t actually think clearly, but it’s totally unreasonable. As for the second poster, you will never convince me that anyone actually understood it as anything other than criticism of the school’s handling of the first poster. That was both clear and completely obvious, and deeming the poster a threat was a cynical post-hoc justification to justify censoring criticism. And contrary to this explanation, those in charge using their power to stifle criticism of themselves is the very heart of censorship.

Furthermore, invoking the Virginia Tech shootings to justify the school’s actions after the fact was just plain irresponsible (but also, sadly, not uncommon).

Finally, while I am excited to see the school offering to educate the community about the First Amendment, it is not the university community that needs educating. It is Sorensen, Police Chief Lisa A. Walter, and their fellow administrators who need it.

But let’s not dwell on the negative for too long. This week is a good one for free speech on campus. I am not sure the school would have backed down if not for the help of some of my heroes, including Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Neil Gaiman, who helped spread the word about the case. But most of all this victory over administrative overreach would not have been possible without the impassioned support of Firefly fans everywhere. You guys won this.

So, my fellow Browncoats, we have defended free speech on campus. I propose we now move to step two of our planetary improvement plan and get the series back in production! (A nerd can dream, can’t he?)

Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.