What’s the Context of the ‘Firefly’ Quote?

By September 28, 2011

University of WisconsinStout Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen has absurdly doubled down on the university’s claim that a quote from the short-lived sci-fi classic Firefly is a credible threat of violence. In an email sent to faculty and staff yesterday, Sorensen writes: "It was our belief, after consultation with UW System legal counsel, that the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. That is why they were removed."

Sorensen’s claim that the quote is an "implied threat of violence" and thus properly subject to censorship is patently ridiculous. But some people have wondered if the quote itself was a threat in its original context, therefore somehow justifying at least some of UWStout’s concern. The answer is again no.

I just so happen to own the DVD set of Firefly (yes, I am a Firefly fan, mock me if you will, but fear the Browncoats!). So I found the scene in question and am transcribing it below to give the context of the alleged "threat":

Serenity Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, to Dr. Simon Tam, who is on the run from authorities trying to abduct his sister: You ain’t weak and that’s not nothin’. You live by my rule, you keep your sister from doing anything crazy—you could maybe find a place here, until you find better.

Dr. Simon Tam: Uh, I’m trying to put this as delicately as I can…how do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?

Mal: 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.

Simon: Are you always this sentimental?

Mal: I had a good day.

The bolded part is the exact quote from Professor Miller’s poster. In the context of the show, which can be described as a "space western," it is the very opposite of a threat—instead, it’s a succinct statement of the honor code by which Mal Reynolds, who is more or less a "space cowboy," lives. It is his word that he will not attack Simon unless there is a reason to do so, and even then, only in a fair fight. And it is given in the context of Reynolds offering protection on his ship to people who are on the run from an immoral government that basically wants to enslave Simon’s sister. Watching the video clip makes this even clearer, if you can find it, but any posting of it I do is likely to be removed quickly due to copyright concerns. 

It is important to note that Professor Miller did locate and send UW-Stout Police Chief Walter the video clip of this scene. If they bothered to see the quote in context, there is no way that Walter, Sorensen, or any other official at UW-Stout could see Miller as a credible violent threat. (Mind you, not understanding the context of the quote makes the university’s response no less meritless.)

As for UWStout’s argument that the "Warning: Fascism" poster was a threat by Professor Miller (presumably that he was going to engage in fascism?), only an idiot can seriously believe that, and UW-Stout administrators are almost certainly not that dumb. But we wanted to provide the context for the first poster as well so that readers can understand just how much purposeful misunderstanding has to take place for UW-Stout to take the position it is taking.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Stout Cases: University of Wisconsin – Stout: Censorship, Referral to Threat Assessment Team, and Threat of Criminal Charges after Professor Puts Posters Outside Office Door