The University of Wisconsin’s Lesson: Ignorance + Political Correctness = Repression

Why does a defunct cult TV space Western threaten the University of Wisconsin? Good Question!

As in the disturbing incident at Widener Law School, in which a professor has been persecuted and punished for the imagined sexist and racist implications in his  fanciful classroom hypothetical, a theater professor at the University of Wisconsin in Stout, is now being subjected to full-fledged censorship by the university’s administration because of a pop culture reference that it finds “threatening.”

And also as in the Widener situation, one wonders if the school’s faculty cares enough about academic freedom and free speech to support their colleague. So far, they have not.

Prof. James Miller is, like me, a fan of “Firefly,”  Joss Whedon’s late, lamented science fiction TV series. He mounted a poster on his door that shows actor Nathan Fillion as Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, captain of the spaceship that cruised through the series.  The poster includes a famous line (well, famous with fans of the show, at least) by Reynolds in the first episode,  delivered in response to a passenger who asked if he was in danger of being murdered while he slept. “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once,” Fillion’s character said. “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.”

Lisa Walter, the university’s chief of police, took down the poster, stating that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” Walter said that the poster was not covered by the First Amendment:

“ We were notified of the existence of the posting, reviewed it and believe that the wording on the poster can be interpreted as a threat by others and/or could cause those that view it to believe that you are willing/able to carry out actions similar to what is listed. This posting can cause others to fear for their safety, thus it was removed.”

Absurd. Ignorant. Offensive.  And an abuse of power.

The quote is, by definition, a cultural allusion. Walter, like the various unhinged Palin defenders who saw alarming murderous intent in the former Alaska governor’s inclusion in the Lord High Executioner’s facetious list of people “who never would be missed” in a community production of “The Mikado” (which I like even more than “Firefly”) doesn’t have the breadth of pop culture knowledge to understand the poster, and do you know what? That’s just too bad. She needs to get out more. Or perhaps she needs to stay in more: if she recognized Fillion from his current show, “Castle,” maybe she’d be able to make the connection that the actor specializes in slyly humorous characters, and the “menacing” speech is tongue in cheek.

But no. To Chief Walter, “if I kill you” is threatening because she doesn’t understand it. She also doesn’t understand that a threat has to be intended, plausible and real in order to justify censorship.

I wonder what other quotations would frighten and confuse the Chief? How about Frank Zappa’s observation,  “If your children ever find out how lame you really are, they’ll murder you in your sleep” ? Or perhaps, if we want a quote from someone less well-known, this: “Probably the toughest time in anyone’s life is when you have to murder a loved one because they’re the devil.” Emo Philips, a stand-up comic, said that. Then there is Alfred Hitchcock’s facetious,  “Television has brought back murder into the home – where it belongs.” Would Walter recognize his famous form on a poster? Norman Mailer wrote,  “I felt something shift to murder in me. I felt that I was an outlaw, a psychic outlaw, and I liked it.” Ooh, scary.  Shakespeare has some scary quotes, too. I recall one about killing lawyers.

No professor, indeed no human being living on or off campus in the United States of America should have to waste one second of their lives defending themselves against this kind of ignorance-fueled political correctness.  Yet Walter is not only persisting in her conduct, it is being backed by the university!

To protest the censorship, Prof. Miller put up a satirical  poster that showed a silhouette of a cop beating a man. “WARNING: FASCISM,” the poster proclaims. “Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death.  Keep fascism away from children and pets.” Walter took that one down too. Her explanation:

“The posting depicts violence and mentions violence and death. The campuses threat assessment team met yesterday and conferred with UW System Office of General Counsel and made the decision that this posting should be removed. It is believed that this posting also has a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat. “

Now Prof. Miller has been called on the carpet to discuss “the concerns raised by the campus threat assessment team” by Raymond Haye, the interim dean.

As is its tradition and mission, FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is now on the case, warning the school that its conduct is a violation of  Miller’s freedom of speech.  Yet none of this should be occurring at all. The University of Wisconsin is behaving like the rankest censor, squeezing completely protected speech into a narrow First Amendment exception over a harmless poster, making the school look foolish and, yes, fascist in the process, and for what? To show support for an over-reaching and pop-culture deprived employee? To prove that universities are just as capable of asinine “no-tolerance” fiascos as public schools?

The liberal brainwashing experiment that has been America’s university system for nearly a half-century is reaching the point of surrealism, as students, administrators and employees in some of the most extreme of these schools now believe that they can and should create the utopia of their choice by excising words, images, concepts and ideas from expression and discourse. It is profoundly frightening that institutions that supposedly exist to encourage learning, imagination, creativity, the passionate exchange of ideas and the exploration of culture and knowledge can be so willing to compromise all of this with so little provocation or rational thought. It is more frightening, however, that Miller had to go outside the campus to find defenders. For this means that at some level the thought police, as well as the ignorant police chief, are in the majority, or, which is just as disturbing, they have managed to leach all principle and courage from the university community.

[Thanks to tgt for the pointer]

UPDATE: Thanks to FIRE, Prof. Miller has been exonerated, and the University has admitted the error of its ways. (10/4/11)

14 thoughts on “The University of Wisconsin’s Lesson: Ignorance + Political Correctness = Repression

  1. Waaaaaaaaaait a minute.

    In 2007, you talked about Boston’s response to the Aqua Teen Hunger Force electric diode advertisements that some people thought were bombs. (These ads were placed in ten cities, and only one had a meltdown like this: Boston.)

    Your point that they should investigate if the goal WAS to provoke this sort of response to get advertising is still perfectly valid. I also find most forms of viral marketing really stupid (this one included, since the devices would only be recognized by people who are already fans!)

    But at the end of the day, the only reason Boston had a meltdown was because there were enough people who didn’t recognize the cartoon characters Ignignokt and Err. If anyone familar with the cartoon looked at it, they’d say, “That’s from Aqua Teen. Maybe it’s some sort of marketing.”

    This is similar, isn’t it? I didn’t know what that quote was from when I read it (I’ve only seen one episode of Firefly, and I wasn’t impressed).

    I’m not resisting the obvious response, which is “Yeah, free speech, the objecting people are dopes, bla bla,” but doesn’t this demonstrate that at least part of the blame does lie on the overreaction of the authorities in Boston? Or can we alleviate the initial reaction of this dean for not being familiar with Firefly, if not the later reaction?

    • Good job making that connection, and if the chief in Wisconsin had reason to suspect that the poster was going to explode before she could check the reference, I’d say, sure, take it down to be on the safe side. The fact is that the quote wouldn’t have justified her response if it had been jotted on a brown paper bag and had once been said by the prof’s butcher….but we don’t need to reach that objection, because it was a quote (and quotes from local butchers don’t tend to get posters made with the quote superimposed on the picture of the leading man on “Castle.” On the other hand, even if the strange blinking thing in Boston was immediately recognizable as Charlie Brown, it STILL was a strange blinking thing someplace where it didn’t belong, and in the post 9-11 world, that’s more than strange, it’s legitimately threatening.So recognizable or not, it was reasonable to get rid of the blinking things, and recognizable of not, that quote is free speech. Knowing the reference would, or should, stop the over-reaction in Wisconsin, but knowing the reference wouldn’t change the reasonable response in Boston.

      • I diasgree. If they recognized the mooninites, there might have been one person who would then rightfully determine it was harmless, walk up to the devices and prove it and smother the potential overreaction (that didn’t happen, remember, in NINE other cities).

        I recognize the difference between one person doing it and a corporation, and the Aqua Teen thing was a worse idea, but these both are events that hinge on someone failing to recognize a pop-culture character

        • I think if I conceded that point, I would then point out to the language of the quote:

          “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.”

          Notwithstanding the “If”, it suggests that the death will occur in a duel in which “you” are an active participant. Only active participants are “armed”. If you don’t want to be the subject of this man’s killing, don’t face him and don’t arm yourself.

  2. I think you are missing another force at work here, the bureaucracy . They have gladly embraced the political correctness of the liberal majority on campus, not because they necessarily believe in it, but because it lets them have power. There is a wonderful quote from P.J. O’Rourke on this, “bureaucracy is attractive because it gives every piss-ant an anthill to piss from”. Chief Walker got to excercise arbitrary and petty authority in tearing down the posters. People who enjoy the exercise of unrestrained power over people are attracted to such positions. By challenging her, Miller was challenging the entire bureaucratic ruling class of the university, and that couldn’t be allowed. From that moment on, he was going to be picked on and subject to unreasonable scrutiny, subjected to endless requests to comply with the most outrageous interpretations of every University regulation. He will be subjected to endless meetings to explain and justify every time he goes to the bathroom before a “Hearing consisting of both faculty and administrators”.

    Section IV, paragraph 5 of the faculty clearly state that “when not teaching, faculty should be available to students”. By using the men’s room, you were unavailable to female students. This was a blatantly sexist act of your part and under my authority as gender relations officer are ordering you to attend sensitivity training.

  3. So I guess a poster of Captain Hammer saying “…because the hammer will be my penis.” is out of the question, huh?


    P.S. Back-to-back posts featuring Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion naturally point my brain in the direction of “Dr. Horrible.”

  4. Funny, I haven’t seen nearly as much “Firefly” as my hub, who adores it, and even *I* recognized that as a really good Joss Whedonism. Even not getting the reference, it’s a GOOD LINE.
    I wonder… if it was IN the office on the wall instead of on the outside of the door would have been such a hubbub? His next poster was good, too- but too blatant to be allowed to stand since they’d already decided no First Amendment was allowed there…

  5. I’ve never seen the show at all, and I didn’t catch the allusion. (I could have figured it out, but that’s because my IQ is above room temperature, unlike those of both Chief Walter and the administration.) What I find interesting is that the alleged threat is clearly the exact opposite of a threat: the quoted material says pretty clearly, “you have nothing to fear from me if you aren’t armed (presumably, against me).”

    For a couple of years, I had a sign on my office door proclaiming, “Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias.” (Background/explanation here. Now that’s a cultural reference that’s a threat (except for the fact that it obviously isn’t, either.) Those of us who teach theatre at compass-point state universities are an unsavory lot.

    • You actually nailed why I first brought this to Jack’s attention. The quote describes ethical behavior. Apparently, having ethics is dangerous if you use a gunfighting metaphor. Would they take down a dos and don’ts ethics poster that says “Don’t stab people in the back?”

      • I admit to being so focused on the stupidity and pop culture issues that I slighted perhaps the best one….that the quote is an ethical statement using violent rhetoric. Before I wrote the piece, I tried to find other such quotes, using death, murder or violence to make an ethical point, and got distracted by the quotes I used, which were harmless or funny but would probably have also rung the chief’s defective alarms.

        Good work by the Brain Trust. The “stab in the back” reference is perfect; I wish I had thought of it….but as long as it’s in the Comments, mission accomplished.

  6. Look, folks, this is WISCONSIN. The state that brought you hooligans protesting in the state capitol building, when the governor took a stand against union/gangster initiated unsustainable public sector wage and benefit packages; the state in which the same hooligans blocked the same state governor from awarding the special Olympics kids their badges in a ceremony they stormed as a protest against his actions; the state that brought you the “Progressive” movement, i.e. a cheery new name for communism, in the name of individual’s “rights”, when, in fact, it was a poorly disguised example of wealth redistribution, i.e. legalized, state-sponsored theft. Having lived there for 4 years, at the mother institution in Madison, I can tell you that I am not surprised.

  7. “LET’S KILL ALL THE LAWYERS.” Henry VI, Part 2, spoken by Dick the Butcher.

    Most of the Culturally-Deprived (like the police in this case) haven’t a clue that that was Shakespeare actually giving back-handed praise, compliments, to the legal profession.

    These are probably the same folks who take everything literally, no matter how ludicrous, when “debating” from their KJV Bibles.

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