"If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed."
If you post these words on the outside of your office door, be prepared to face charges of disorderly conduct at the University of Wisconsin–Stout (UWS). Don’t think that you can avoid being reported to the threat assessment team, either, and to your dean. And after you’re censored and threatened with charges by the campus police, definitely don’t put up a new, satirical poster that states, "Warning: Fascism."
No matter that at UWS, the professor had posted the whole quotation, which comes from actor Nathan Fillion’s character Mal at the end of the first episode of the television series Firefly: "You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you …." No matter that he included a photo of the character on the same poster. No matter that the professor later included the context of the quotation by providing a video clip to the Chief of Police.
Here’s what happened.
On September 12, 2011, UWS theater professor James Miller posted outside his office door the image of Nathan Fillion in Firefly and the quotation. Four days later, on September 16, UWS Chief of Police Lisa A. Walter emailed Miller, notifying him that she had removed the poster and that "it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing."
Amazed that UWS could be so shockingly heavy-handed, Miller replied by email, "Respect liberty and respect my first amendment rights." Walter responded that "the poster can be interpreted as a threat by others and/or could cause those that view it to believe that you are willing/able to carry out actions similar to what is listed." Walter also threatened Miller with criminal charges: "If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct."
Later on September 16, Miller placed a new poster outside his office door in response to Walter’s censorship. The poster read "Warning: Fascism" and included a cartoon image of a silhouetted police officer striking a civilian. The poster mockingly stated, "Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets."
Astoundingly, Walter escalated the absurdity. On September 20, Walter emailed Miller again, stating that her office had removed the poster because it "depicts violence and mentions violence and death." She added that UWS’s "threat assessment team," in consultation with the university system general counsel’s office, had decided to have the poster removed, and that this poster was reasonably expected to "cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat."
College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Interim Dean Raymond Hayes then scheduled a meeting with Miller about "the concerns raised by the campus threat assessment team" for today, and Miller came to FIRE for help. For now, the meeting has been rescheduled for Friday.
On September 21, FIRE wrote UWS Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, explaining that the posters are not a credible threat, nor would any reasonable person expect them to cause a substantial disruption. In Virginia v. Black (2003), the Supreme Court defined true threats, as an exception to the First Amendment, as only "those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals."
FIRE asked that Sorensen immediately end the university’s censorship of Miller’s peaceful speech, apologize to Miller for threatening criminal charges against him, and rescind its request for a meeting about the threat assessment team’s inexplicable concerns. Sorensen has not yet responded. Maybe our national press release today will persuade him to take First Amendment rights seriously and take the swift action that is needed here.
It is both shameful and absurd for campus officials to suggest that Miller or members of the campus community would use a reference to violence on a poster as a reason to commit either actual violence or a substantial disruption of the campus. The police and the threat assessment team are the true threats to freedom at UW–Stout. Firefly flans and others can let Chancellor Sorensen know what you think by phoning him at 715-232-2441, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or using our Take Action page to tell Chancellor Sorensen to restore free expression on campus today.