THE DARK SIDE: A First Amendment showdown at UW-Stout

September 27, 2011

This week, Wisconsin is ground zero in the battle between university bureaucrats and free speech champions.

No, I’m not talking about the University of Wisconsin’s attempts to stifle criticism of its admission policies. That’s been going on for years, and will continue for many more.

No, this battle is much less weighty, but far more absurd, and involves a theater professor at UW-Stout.

Apparently, the same guy who made the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series also made some sci-fi show called “Firefly.” I’ve never seen it nor heard of it, but if it was even half as good as “Buffy,” I’m sure it was a grand show. The theater professor is a big fan, though, and put this poster from the show on his office door:

The poster features a picture of the show’s lead character and the following quote from some episode: “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.”

Apparently, that was the character’s response to being asked, “How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?”

It’s hard to see what could be objectionable about that. I think all of us can agree that, barring extraordinary circumstances, a reasonable man should never kill someone who is asleep, running away or unarmed.

But, as we all know from extensive over-education, university bureaucrats are not reasonable people.

So, you guessed it — the university took the poster down. They even threatened the professor with patently unconstitutional disorderly conduct charges. The professor then replaced the poster with another:

In case you didn’t notice during your four years of undergraduate education and three years of law school, university bureaucrats don’t like being called “fascists.” And you also may have noticed that, the bigger the fascists they actually are, the less they like being called “fascists.”

So, of course, the university took the professor’s second poster down, too.

There’s a big showdown scheduled for Friday, with the university bureaucrats on one side and the professor, supported by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, on the other.

I have written extensive criticism in the past about the origins and applications of the “true threat” doctrine in First Amendment law, but don’t intend to go into that here and now. In any event, the Supreme Court has expressed no such misgivings and it remains part of our free speech jurisprudence.

But with or without the doctrine, the university’s actions are so far beyond the pale of what is constitutionally permissible. Every lawyer in Wisconsin must be licking his chops for the chance to bring a Section 1983 action against these clowns.

I know I am.

Given the track record of FIRE, however, I suspect this incident will end rather quietly, with the UW-Stout bureaucrats slinking away with their tails between their legs. It sure would be fun, though, if they actually tried to defend what they have done and one of us gets to sue them for it.

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