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)