MINNEAPOLIS, Sept. 28, 2011—The chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Stout (UWS) has declared that he will not defend faculty First Amendment rights from censorship. UWS censored theater professor James Miller’s poster featuring a line from actor Nathan Fillion’s character in Joss Whedon’s television series Firefly. Campus police threatened Miller with criminal disorderly conduct charges, and he was reported to the “threat assessment team.” After UWS censored his second poster, which stated, “Warning: Fascism,” Miller came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. In the midst of FIRE’s national campaign to restore faculty rights at UWS, the university is standing by its absurd claim that both posters were “implied threat[s] of violence.”
“Despite widespread mockery in the media of the administration’s wild overreaction to being criticized, and despite a barrage of emails from Firefly fans and others explaining that the quote from the show was the exact opposite of a threat, the chancellor has defied all reason by standing by UW-Stout’s censorship and threat of criminal charges for these two harmless posters,” FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. “Stout’s top administrators have essentially declared an unlimited right to unconstitutionally censor students and faculty members even if their rationale for censorship is shown to be absurd.”
On September 12, 2011, Professor Miller posted on his office door an image of Nathan Fillion in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly and a line from an 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.” On September 16, UWS Chief of Police Lisa A. Walter notified Miller that she had removed the poster because it “refer[s] to killing.” After Miller replied, “respect my first amendment rights,” Walter wrote that “the poster can be interpreted as a threat.” Walter also threatened Miller with criminal charges: “If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct.”
In response to Walter’s censorship, Miller placed a new poster on his office door on the 16th. The poster read “Warning: Fascism” and mocked, “Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.”
Astoundingly, Walter escalated the absurdity. On September 20, she wrote that this poster, too, had been censored because it “depicts violence and mentions violence and death” and was expected to “be constituted as a threat.” She added that UWS’s “threat assessment team,” in consultation with the university general counsel’s office, had made the decision. College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Interim Dean Raymond Hayes then scheduled a meeting with Miller about “the concerns raised by the campus threat assessment team.”
Miller came to FIRE for help. On September 21, FIRE wrote UWS Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, citing Supreme Court precedent to explain that the posters are not a threat, nor would a reasonable person even expect them to cause a substantial disruption. Sorensen did not respond to FIRE, so FIRE launched a national campaign on September 26 to restore fundamental rights to UWS’s campus. Later that day, Hayes canceled his meeting with Miller.
Sorensen, however, dug a deeper hole. Together with Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes, Sorensen defended UWS’s censorship in an email to all faculty and staff on September 27. The three administrators wrote that “the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. That is why they were removed.”
UWS or Wisconsin’s Board of Regents now must immediately reassure the campus community that their First Amendment rights will be protected and that this censorship was an error that will not be repeated.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Vice President of Programs, FIRE: 215-717-3473, firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles W. Sorensen, Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Stout: 715-232-2441, email@example.com
Michael J. Spector, President, University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents: 414-277-5879, firstname.lastname@example.org
TAKE ACTION: Tell Chancellor Sorensen and President Spector to restore free expression on campus today!