This week, FIRE has a special treat for you. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite posts from over the past year: pieces we think are particularly well written or cases we are particularly passionate about. Today, we have Sarah McLaughlin’s post about Bergen Community College’s overreaction to a Game of Thrones quote, originally published on April 16, 2014. Please enjoy!
Bergen Administrators Fear ‘Game of Thrones’ Quote, Censor Professor
Brace yourselves; censorship is coming!
Displaying a lack of both pop culture and First Amendment awareness, administrators at Bergen Community College in New Jersey placed Professor Francis Schmidt on leave this past January, requiring him to meet with a psychiatrist before returning to campus—just for posting a picture of his daughter in a T-shirt quoting the popular HBO television show Game of Thrones.
Schmidt, an art and animation professor, was required to meet with an academic vice president, the executive director of human resources, and the head of security at the college, and then was suspended because they believed Schmidt had sent a “threatening email.”
There are many problems with this accusation. First, Schmidt did not send an email. One of BCC’s deans was a contact of Schmidt’s on Google+ and she automatically received an email from Google when Schmidt posted on Google+. Second, the “threatening” material was a picture of Schmidt’s young daughter doing yoga in a Game of Thrones T-shirt with the quote, “I will take what is mine with fire & blood.” For those who are unfamiliar with Game of Thrones, this is a quote from the character Daenerys, who is pledging to retake the throne in Westeros, a war-torn continent and the primary setting of the series.
While other characters in the show should probably be concerned that Daenerys will retake the throne with fire and blood (and dragons), administrators at Bergen Community College certainly don’t need to worry. Unfortunately, they are apparently under the impression that Schmidt’s T-shirt is not an expression of his interest in the show, but of his intentions to shoot up the school. Inexplicably, the head of security claimed that he believed the “fire” described in Daenerys’ quote “could be a kind of proxy for ‘AK-47s.’”
Schmidt believes the school is acting not to protect students from potential threats, but to retaliate against him. A week before being suspended, Schmidt filed a grievance against the school because he was passed up for a sabbatical.
Torch readers will no doubt remember a similar and equally absurd case at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where Professor James Miller posted a picture of actor Nathan Fillion with a quote from Firefly, a science fiction television show. The poster read: “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.”
Although the quote actually reflects the space-Western character’s assurance that he would never kill an unarmed man, it was removed by Stout’s police chief because it “refer[red] to killing” and could potentially be viewed as a threat. Miller was also forced to meet with the school’s “threat assessment team” after he responded to the first takedown by posting a satirical flyer that warned of fascism—a poster obviously meant to mock the school’s tendency to censor, not invite more censorship.
Check out our video explaining the case, which has been viewed more than 110,000 times and features legendary science fiction author Neil Gaiman:
Whether it’s “fire” or Firefly, colleges too often censor protected speech by taking an overbroad view of what constitutes a true threat. College administrators have a responsibility to keep their campuses safe from genuine threats of violence, but can we trust them to recognize real danger if they mistake television sci-fi or fantasy quotes as threats?
After FIRE got involved, Stout administrators eventually realized their error and relented; Miller’s Firefly poster and First Amendment rights were restored.
Meanwhile, Schmidt is teaching again at Bergen Community College, but it’s worrying that Schmidt was forced to go through this ordeal in the first place. Hopefully, Bergen administrators will soon recognize that Daenerys’ dragons are only a threat in Westeros, not on campus.