Under pressure from FIRE, national media, and actors Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, the University of Wisconsin-Stout (Stout) has reversed its censorship of theater professor James Miller’s poster featuring a line from Fillion’s character in Joss Whedon’s television series Firefly. Campus police had threatened Miller with criminal disorderly conduct charges, and he was reported to the "threat assessment team." After Stout censored his second poster, which stated, "Warning: Fascism," Miller came to FIRE for help. Torch readers can learn more about Miller’s case here.
Miller’s troubles at Stout began on September 12, 2011, when he posted outside his office door an image of 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, Stout 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 of "disorderly conduct" if he posted any similar poster.
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 as a "threat" because it "depicts violence and mentions violence and death." She added that Stout’s "threat assessment team" 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 then came to FIRE for help. On September 21, FIRE wrote Stout Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, citing Supreme Court precedent to explain that the posters were not a true threat, nor would a reasonable person expect them to cause a substantial disruption. Sorensen did not respond to FIRE, and FIRE launched a national campaign on September 26 to restore fundamental rights to Stout’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 Stout’s censorship in an email to all faculty and staff on September 27.
At least 1,000 people wrote Sorensen in defense of First Amendment rights at Stout, and dozens of articles about the case appeared in the national media. Today, Baldwin (co-star of Firefly) wrote about Stout’s apparent double standard in censorship. Baldwin noted that earlier this year, Stout apparently had no problem with "Kill the Bill" posters based on the film Kill Bill, which depicted Uma Thurman with a sword and advocated against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill.
Finally, in a letter to all faculty, staff, and students today, the three senior administrators announced that Stout had reversed its decision, is developing a new protocol for handling such cases, and "will schedule workshops and/or forums during this academic year on First Amendment rights and responsibilities in higher education."
As Adam stated in today’s press release, "It takes humility to recognize one’s mistakes, and UW-Stout’s senior administration now deserves praise for making the right call." Nonetheless, Stout could have acknowledged its errors more directly. FIRE will continue to monitor the state of free speech at Stout, and we hope this controversy has become a learning experience for the administration.