Firestorm over “Firefly” poster; FIRE intervenes

There are times I think some Wisconsin residents are determined to make our state the laughingstock of the country.

Last month, a theater professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout put a poster on the door to his office. It bore a picture of a character from the TV series “Firefly” with a quote from the show. And it got the professor threatened with criminal charges. Here it is:

(You can watch a video clip here that puts the above quote into context.)

Christian Schneider at National Review Online describes “Firefly” as a “libertarian cult classic that is part throwback Western, part space fiction, and features characters (ironically) who battle an authoritarian government.”

Professor James Miller, a fan of the series, put the poster on his office door on September 12. On September 16, UW-Stout Police Chief Lisa Walter removed the poster, and informed Dr. Miller that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.”

University officials agreed with Walter, saying that they couldn’t allow posters that they believe contain threats of violence. “We have a responsibility as a university to provide an atmosphere for our students, faculty and staff that is safe,” UW-Stout spokesman Doug Mell said.

After his Firefly poster was removed, Miller put up a new poster:

The campus cops removed that one as well, and Miller received an email from Police Chief Walter that said, among other things, “The posting depicts violence and mentions violence and death. The campuses [sic] threat assessment team met yesterday and conferred with UW System Office of General Counsel and made the decision that this posting should be removed. 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 [sic] as a threat.”

Then the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) jumped into the fray. On September 21, FIRE wrote a letter to UW-Stout Chancellor Charles Sorenson protesting the assault on Professor Miller’s free speech rights. Sorenson did not respond to the letter. On September 27, Sorensen sent an email to all faculty and staff, claiming that the University’s act of censorship was not an act of censorship, but “an act of sensitivity to and care for our shared community, and was intended to maintain a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure.”

Nathan Fillion (the actor whose picture appears on the offending poster), Adam Baldwin (another actor from the series), and writer Neil Gaiman also got into the act, posting comments on Twitter that prompted thousands of people from across the country to contact UW administrators in support of Professor Miller.

As Baldwin pointed out, none of the folks currently having fits over Professor Miller’s supposedly “violent” and “threatening” posters expressed even the mildest objection to the “Kill the Bill” signs that appeared all over campus earlier this year as part of a protest against Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill. The signs were a takeoff on the publicity poster for the movie “Kill Bill.” Baldwin wrote:

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.

The double standard is alive and well in academia.

But finally the pressure got to be too much even for the arrogant know-it-alls who run UW-Stout, and the administration caved. Chancellor Sorenson defended the original decision to remove the posters, stating that officials did so “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,” the statement continued, “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.”

No kidding.

“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.”

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