UW-Stout welcomes discussion of free speech issues

By March 28, 2012

MENOMONIE – UW-Stout professor James Miller, who raised First Amendment rights issues on campus last year when he placed a controversial poster on his office door, said having a representative of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on campus Wednesday is a good sign for freedom of speech.

"I’m glad FIRE is here," Miller said.

In September Miller put the poster with the quotation "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" from the TV science-fiction series "Firefly" on his office door. The poster was deemed unacceptable by campus police because it referred to killing and could be interpreted as a threat to others. Campus police removed the poster from Miller’s door.

A few days later he put up another poster, this one stating how fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. The university’s threat assessment team was activated and Miller’s academic dean called him to discuss concerns about the posters.

Miller said he believes those incidents, which attracted media attention, prompted university administrators to realize they can’t control the blogosphere or the press, particularly with changes in social media and the advent of YouTube.

University administrators initially defended the removal of the posters before later announcing they would no longer censor them.

UW-Stout spokesman Doug Mell acknowledged that widespread attention to the incident led the university to re-examine how it handles such situations.

"I think there was a consensus that there were probably holes in our procedures," Mell said. Ultimately, the university created a new protocol to address such issues, he said.

FIRE vice president of programs Adam Kissel said it was rare that UW-Stout officials would invite him to campus after such an incident. FIRE has defended faculty and student free speech rights for the past dozen years.

"I feel like you are going in the right direction and turning this negative into a positive," Kissel said of UW-Stout administration.

Differing opinions and disagreement about issues are a part of a higher education, he said, noting a healthy higher education system works to engage people in dialogue and defend their opinions. About two-thirds of U.S. universities and colleges have unfair codes that restrict free speech, said Kissel, whose lecture at the UW-Stout Memorial Student Center Wednesday morning was sponsored by the university’s Center for Applied Ethics.

"If you’re only hanging around with people who agree with you, you’re not really getting a good education," Kissel said.

Mell, the university spokesman, said UW-Stout offers an environment that promotes freedom of speech.

"We brought him to campus today," Mell said of Kissel. "This is a group that made our life difficult for weeks, and we brought them to campus. The proof’s in the pudding."

Despite his praise for UW-Stout administration allowing him to speak on campus, Kissel said the university has some policies that concern him. For instance, one regulation in the residence hall handbook prohibits disorderly conduct in the dormitories but fails to spell out what behaviors would be considered disorderly, he said.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Stout