by Andrew Dowd
Eau Claire Leader-Telegram
Will a UW-Stout professor hang duplicates of two posters taken down in September, now that the university changed its mind after a national First Amendment controversy?
Jim Miller said he might hang a new poster of actor Nathan Fillion, but he first wants some time to see if measures pledged by the administration will ensure free speech on campus.
“If I re-post, it will be a new, glossy shiny poster,” said Miller, a professor of theater and speech communication at the Menomonie university.
University administrators sent an email Tuesday to all students, faculty and staff, informing them that UW-Stout officials reconsidered a decision to take down two posters outside Miller’s office. The statement defended reasons for taking the posters down due to the “legitimate concern for the violent messages contained in each poster.”
“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,” the statement read.
Furthermore, the university is reviewing its procedures for handling similar situations, and ethics workshops will be scheduled this year on First Amendment rights and responsibilities in higher education.
“First of all, there’s much to be commended in that statement,” Miller said.
While he lauded the idea of forums educating people about free speech, Miller added that the statement doesn’t say who will be teaching whom about the First Amendment.
“It’s one of those ambiguities that has to be resolved,” he said.
His concern is that the same people who decided to take down the posters will be teaching the classes, instead of taking them.
And he notes that there’s no apology for the university’s actions, but just explanations and justifications for its original actions.
The first controversial poster showed Fillion, dressed in costume as a spaceship captain from the defunct FOX sci-fi series “Firefly.” The poster had the quote, “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.”
The university objected to the inclusion of the word “kill” and how the quote could be perceived as a threat. Miller noted the context of the passage is a lighthearted conversation between two friends where one explains his philosophy of self-defense.
An email from university police Chief Lisa Walter shows she warned Miller that he could be charged with disorderly conduct if he hung new copies of the poster after she took it down.
The second poster – Miller’s response to the first one being taken down – showed a stick figure in riot gear beating up another figure lying on the ground. A caption underneath the image read: “Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.”
Miller said that poster specifically advocated against violence, but university police took it down because it bore an image of violence.
After he was notified he’d be called in front of a dean for a meeting, Miller feared he could face disciplinary actions, potentially termination, and requested help from the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Since FIRE reported Miller’s story online last week and the news spread to other media outlets, that meeting was canceled and hundreds of emails were sent to UW-Stout in objection to the administration’s actions.
More than 900 people contacted UW-Stout using FIRE’s website since the news broke last week, according to the rights advocacy group.
“It’s fair to say the chancellor’s office has received hundreds of emails,” university spokesman Doug Mell said.
Negative feedback to the university’s reaction to the posters reached its crescendo on about Thursday or Friday, died off over the weekend, and then more emails came in Monday and Tuesday, Mell said. The vast majority of feedback, at least 90 percent, came from outside the campus, he added.
But Miller said he’s seen signs of protest around UW-Stout. Copies of the “fascism” poster were seen in an academic building, and students posted duplicates of it on their Facebook pages.
Miller got about 50 emails addressed specifically to him, but he noted that some students and alumni also sent him copies of messages they emailed to the chancellor.
Outside of getting notice of Tuesday’s statement and then the same email sent to all of campus, Miller said there’s been no communication between himself and administrators since media reports of the “Firefly” incident came out last week.