‘Firefly’ censorship debacle gets wildly out of hand at University of Wisconsin

September 30, 2011

A University of Wisconsin professor aims to misbehave.

Professor James Miller, a University of Wisconsin, Stout theater professor, has made headlines recently because of a battle over censorship with the school administration. And at the center of that censorship battle is none other than our favorite Space Western, Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

According to Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, it all started when Professor Miller put a Firefly poster up on his office door on the UW-Stout campus on September 12th. The poster featured an imposing Malcolm Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion in Firefly) and the words, "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." 

Any fan of Firefly will recognize that quote from the show’s pilot episode, in which the ship’s new doctor, Simon Tam, asks Captain Reynolds how he knows the Captain won’t kill him in his sleep. Anyone with decent reading comprehension skills will understand that the quote basically means, "I play fair. You have nothing to worry about."

The UW-Stout administration didn’t see it that way. UW-Stout Chief of Police and Director of Parking Services Lisa A. Walter removed the poster from Miller’s office door, and then informed the professor that "it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing." Walter also told Miller that any similar posters would be removed and the professor would be charged with "disorderly conduct." To which we all say, "Huh?"

In response to what was clearly an overreaction by the school (and a blatant disregard for his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech), Miller put up a second poster on September 16th, this one showing a figure being beaten with a club and the words "Warning: Fascism. Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets." This second poster was clearly a statement of protest against the administration’s heavy-handed way of dealing with Miller’s harmless expression of free speech in the Firefly poster.

So rather than taking the harmless criticism like a grown-up, or even recognizing the error of her ways, Chief Walter tore down the second poster because it "depicts violence and mentions violence or death." In an epic (and probably willful) misinterpretation of Miller’s intentions behind the poster, Walter continued with "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 as a threat." Walter also reported Miller to the "threat assessment team," which we can only assume is like a Department of Homeland Security for the University of Wisconsin.

Miller is now represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, whose president, Greg Lukianoff, has contacted the UW administration about this incident of heavy-handed censorship. Except that UW Chancellor Charles W. Sorenson doesn’t see it as a problem of censorship or violated First Amendment rights. In a statement to the UW community, Sorenson wrote:

"This was not an act of censorship. This was 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."

Let’s get one thing straight: If it walks like a duck, it’s pretty widely accepted that it’s a duck. Refusing to acknowledge the blatant censorship in Professor Miller’s situation is just small-minded, and strangely obtuse for the administration of an institution of higher learning. As Lukianoff wrote, "Tearing down harmless posters and threatening the professor who put them up with criminal punishment is the very essence of censorship." 

The irony of a situation in which the character of Malcolm Reynolds–a man who risked life, limb, and loved ones to fight censorship in the movie Serenity–is at the center of a fight over whether or not something is censorship is not lost on this Firefly fan.

The outcome of the situation with Professor Miller and the University of Wisconsin is still undecided, but Miller is getting support from everyone from Firefly stars Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion, to Gawker, io9.com, the A.V. Club, and Reason.com. As understandable as it is for UW to want to foster an environment of safety and non-violence on their campus, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to admit when they’re wrong and have over-reacted.

To Professor Miller and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: Keep fighting the good fight and resisting censorship wherever you come across it. Aim to misbehave.