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Firefly and free speech: The Wisconsin U. controversy


Shoot if you see a Buffy poster! Not Dr. Horrible though, I find him non-threatening.

'Firefly' and free speech: The Wisconsin U. controversy

In News of the Truly Unbelievable, theater professor James Miller, of the University of Wisconsin -- Stout, hung a Firefly poster on his door. And that's not the unbelievable part! The Chief of Campus Police, Lisa Walter, saw this poster, decided that it was 'unacceptable' in that it referenced killing, and had the poster removed.

The 'controversial' poster featuring a Captain Malcolm Reynolds quote from 'Firefly'

Just a quick analysis: this is actually Mal's response to the question, "How do I know you won't kill me in my sleep?" While it does 'reference killing' (the police chief's complaint against it), the quote actually speaks to Mal's high moral fiber and standards of fair play. Had this been intended as a threat, it would have been a pretty lame one. Also, I have much higher standards of threats from professors, and people in authority. You only really get the chills from a threat you respect, and how are you going to respect a threat from a now-defunct space cowboy tv show, regardless of how awesome it was?

Professor Miller was informed by email that his poster had been removed, and why. In the email, Chief Walter said, "It is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing" as her reason for removing the poster. Professor Miller replied, "Unacceptable to whom? How dare you act in a fascistic manner and then sign your email "respectfully!" Respect liberty and respect my first amendment rights." Then, rather than getting sponsorship from Joss Whedon to plaster this poster on every surface on the entire campus, Professor Miller posted this:

Professor Miller's choice of follow-up poster in the 'Firefly' poster controversy

You can check out the full email exchange between Professor Miller and Chief Walter here. Notable excerpts include Walter's statement that her actions were defensible, on the basis that the poster "can cause others to fear for their safety" and that under those circumstances it's reasonable that rights to free speech be limited. In analyzing this line of reasoning, I refer you to the above poster featuring Mal from Firefly. He wasn't even the most threatening character on that *show*!! (His second-in-command, Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) was way, way scarier. [She can kill you with her little finger. That's not a threat, by the way, it's a reference to the show. - News Ed.]) The fascism poster was torn down as well, this time because it referenced violence and death. [Of course, the references to fascism had nothing to do with it... - News Ed.]

The legal basis for all of these issues are based on the expectations of a "reasonable person." Is anybody in this drama acting like a reasonable person? And honestly, the second poster couldn't be seen by anybody as anything other than a remark on the University's handling of the first poster. Yet, they decided to continue the behavior that caused the problem in the first place, but making it twice as inappropriate, as it was directed to that very action that they then repeated.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to the University on behalf of Professor Miller. The free-speech controversy had caused all kinds of uproar when it went public - from Firefly stars Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion, and all over the internet. In explaining the issue to UW-Stout Chancellor Sorenson, FIRE expressed the opinion that the poster did not constitute a 'true threat' as defined by the Supreme Court, and asked that the Chancellor rescind censorship and apologize for threatening criminal charges against Professor Miller.

"It is both shameful and absurd for UWS to suggest that campus community members are so impressionable and unreasonable that merely seeing a reference to violence on a poster will lead them to commit either actual violence or a substantial disruption of the campus," FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. "The police and the threat assessment team are the true threats to freedom at UW–Stout."

After receiving no response from Chancellor Sorenson, from September 21 above, FIRE launched a national campaign to "restore fundamental rights" to the university campus. On September 27, Chancellor (along with Provost Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Nieskes, defended the University's actions. They wrote that they, "have the responsibility to promote a campus environment that is free from threats of any kind—both direct and implied. It was our belief, after consultation with UW System legal counsel, that the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. That is why they were removed."

FIRE maintains that "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."

Read The AV Club's hilarious commentary on this absurd situation here.


The University have now reversed their decision.


See also:

The controversialist face of Transformers 3...but is it deserved?

Top 23 things that Joss Whedon should do post-Avengers

Joss talks Dr. Horrible, Avengers

Joss Whedon special editions to undo all character deaths

The wasted potential of Cowboys & Aliens


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