UW-Stout chills First Amendment

October 3, 2011

The issue: UW-Stout officials remove posters from a professor’s office door, claiming they constitute violent threats.

Our view: The posters were not threatening, and the university should apologize for interfering with the professor’s free speech rights.

Acts of senseless violence – such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that left 32 victims dead – no doubt weigh heavily on the minds of those who work to keep college campuses safe. University police and administrators must be mindful of threats and act with caution when they occur.

However, there’s a distinct difference between acting cautiously and acting rashly, as well as a difference between genuinely threatening speech and constitutionally protected free speech.

In a recent case at UW-Stout, it appears officials acted rashly when confronted with a relatively innocuous reference to violence, and then compounded their hasty decision when the target of their censorship thumbed his nose.

The saga began Sept. 12 when Jim Miller, a UW-Stout communications and theater professor, hung a poster from the defunct sci-fi TV series "Firefly" on his office door. The poster showed spaceship captain Mal Reynolds, the series’ protagonist, accompanied by a quote: "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."

As a communications professor – and, one would hope, university administrators – would know, context is critical to understanding a text. In this case, while the quote includes the word "kill," it isn’t espousing violence. Quite the contrary: In the preceding line, a character who has been rescued by the captain asks, "How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?" In the context of the program, the captain’s reply is a declaration of his code of honor – he would only commit violence in self-defense – not a threat.

Unfortunately, university officials didn’t explore this context by asking the professor about his "threatening" poster. Instead, campus police Chief Lisa Walter removed it and emailed Miller that it was "unacceptable." Miller responded that the action was "fascistic" and violated his First Amendment rights. The police chief retorted: "Speech can be limited on a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat." She then threatened that re-posting the quote could bring him a charge of disorderly conduct.

Miller responded by putting up a cheeky poster that bore a cartoon of a figure in riot gear beating another person, as well as the phrase "Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets." Campus police removed that one too.

The kerfuffle may not have received much attention were it not for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that advocates for civil liberties on campus. On Sept. 21, FIRE wrote to Chancellor Charles Sorensen, saying the university’s actions were "outrageous" and that no reasonable person would see the posters as a threat. In its letter, the group stated, "The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or offensive."

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

But instead of apologizing, UW-Stout administrators sent out an email last week defending their actions: "It was our belief, after consultation with UW System legal counsel, that the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence."

UW-Stout’s definition of a "threat" seems unreasonably broad. If authorities find sci-fi TV quotes and anti-fascist cartoons threatening, one worries if they’ll recognize a real threat if one presents itself.

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