Despite my 10 years working to defend free speech on campus, university censors keep finding new ways to surprise me. This year a campus in the University of Wisconsin system managed to do something that offended me both as a First Amendment lawyer and as a sci-fi fan, two parts of my life that I thought would never intersect.
As I reported back in September, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, James Miller, was threatened with potential criminal charges just for posting a quote from the beloved but short-lived sci-fi classic Firefly outside his door and, then, for having the temerity to object to the university’s heavy-handed treatment of him and the poster.
Now, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has come out with a new video explaining this remarkable case, in which I abandon my usual lawyerly suits and ties to reveal my Firefly fanboy self. We are absolutely thrilled that the famous novelist, comic book author, and sci-fi and fantasy legend Neil Gaiman agreed to sit down for an interview about why he thinks this case is ridiculous and why he chose to publicize the professor’s shoddy treatment to his 1.6 million Twitter fans.
While the case is funny if only because it is so ridiculous and the university should have known better than to censor a quote from a show whose rabid and diehard fans even have a special name for themselves (we are "Browncoats," by the way), it very nearly was not funny at all. When power-tripping administrators are accusing you of making threats to the entire community, tearing down your posters, and demanding to meet with you in person, your career may be on the line. I am quite sure that if it hadn’t been for the combined efforts of FIRE, droves of Firefly fans, and people like Gaiman and Firefly stars Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, this case would’ve ended very badly for Miller.
As I discuss in the video, one of the reasons we succeeded in this case was that the University of Wisconsin-Stout managed to pick a case with a built-in constituency of Firefly fans who protested the school’s actions. I hope one day to find a similarly enthusiastic constituency for defenders of everybody’s right to free speech and academic freedom on campus. After all, the larger context of this case is that shocking and absurd acts of censorship happen on campus with startling regularity.
Indeed, as I’ve said before, this isn’t even the worst case of censorship of an innocuous door posting in the state of Wisconsin in the past few years. That honor belongs to Marquette University, which claimed a joke by humorist Dave Barry that a PhD student had posted on his door was "patently offensive" – a term usually restricted in the law to hard-core pornography. (You can hear Dave Barry’s take on this censorship in this video.)
I hope 2012 will find that liberty-minded constituency and turn the world right-side up again, so that universities believe in free speech for everybody and intellectual freedom for all. … But until then we’ll be keeping a careful eye on our campuses.
SPECIAL NOTE: In a tribute to the crucial role social media played in helping defend free speech on campus in this case, we are collaborating with Prizes.org and offering a total of $500 in prizes for the people with the best tweets promoting our new video.
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Schools: Marquette University 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 Marquette University: Political Quote Banned from Office Door