Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Firefly," Fascists, and Freedom of Speech

For a year or two, there was a sign on my office door that read “Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias.” That translates roughly as “Proceed, varlet, and render the day perfect unto me,” or, more colloquially, “Go ahead, punk, make my day.” It was, of course, a joke: the merging of a popular culture reference with my projected self-image both as intellectual and as (pedagogical) tough guy. Anyone who felt threatened, even after having the saying translated, is too stupid to be in my classroom.

Now a different professor of theatre at a different non-flagship state university is at the center of a controversy involving a very similar door decoration. James Miller teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He put a poster (shown at right) from the now-cancelled television show “Firefly” on his office door. It reads “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.” Much to the consternation of some of my students, past and present, I’ve never seen the show, but commentators who are fans assure me that the quotation in question comes from the pilot episode, in which the hero responds to a question about whether the other character will be killed in his sleep.

I can’t confirm that, but anyone with any right to be in a theatre building can read a text well enough to understand that the meaning of the line is the precise opposite of a threat: “You have nothing to fear from me unless you take up arms against me, in which case I will annihilate you.” All of which proves that the Chief of the University Police, one Lisa A. Walter, is an idiot. She removed the poster and then informed Mr. Miller by e-mail that she had done so, claiming that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” Seriously? I'm glad she wasn't the one deciding whether we could advertise our recent production of Yeats one-acts, including (OMG!) The Death of Cuchulain.

Miller reacted pretty much as I would have if my sign had been removed by some moronic campus cop who was as incapable of reading comprehension as she was of respecting personal liberties. (I hope I wouldn’t have called her “fascistic,” as Prof. Miller did in his response, but I make no guarantees.) And then the escalation began. Not content with being merely stupid, Chief Walter ratcheted up the stakes:
My actions are appropriate and defensible. Speech can be limited on a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat. 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.

I am willing to schedule a meeting with you to discuss this further, if you wish. If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct.
Well, no, Chief, your actions were inappropriate and indefensible. No rational human being would come to a “reasonable expectation” that a poster from a television show (you might not have known that, but surely you could figure out that the poster was mass-produced, right?) could possibly cause a “disruption of school activities,” “material and/or substantial” or otherwise, or that the words on the piece of paper constitute a threat of any kind. If other people “fear for their safety” because of that poster, it is your responsibility to escort them to the psychiatric ward, not to confiscate private property without as much as a warrant. Certainly it is you, with your terrifying admixture of stupidity, arrogance, and simple bravado, that constitutes a threat: charges of disorderly conduct? Really?

Miller then raised the tension level again, e-mailing Walter in apparent disbelief:
Postings that "refer" to violence constitute a threat? As in a poster from Hamlet? Or a news clipping about Hockey players that commit violent murder? [EDIT: This last line seemed a bit strange, so I looked it up: sure enough, there was a local story about a group of hockey players allegedly causing the death of a fellow student. Two were charged with felony murder; ten were suspended from the team but not from the university: actual violence apparently fits in fine with the sense of warm fuzzies sought by the Stout administration.]

Don't threaten me with charges that have no basis in reality—I am a committed pacifist and a devotee of non-violence, and I don't appreciate card carrying members of the NRA who are wearing side arms and truncheons lecturing me about violence.
And, of course, he put a different poster on his door: the one to the left, showing a beat-down of a citizen by a cop, with the cutline “Warning: Fascism. Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep Fascism away from children and pets.” Whether Chief Walter was really too dim-witted to know that she was the target of the commentary or just wanted to pretend that she wasn’t, her response was sadly predictable: another removal, another inane justification e-mail:
My office removed another posting from the outside of your office. The posting depicts violence and mentions violence and death. The campuses [sic.] 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.
Notice that the precise “charge” is never spelled out. More importantly, it’s no longer just Walter who is on the silly side. I’ve spent the vast majority of my adult life on college campuses (I’ve taken or taught college courses for at least one semester in every calendar year since 1973), and I’ve known, at least in passing, a few dozen campus cops. Many are nice people, the majority are no doubt perfectly qualified to hand out parking tickets and break up parties that get too loud, but I don’t think many will ever be accused of being intellectual giants. Conversely, more than a few are self-important jackasses. It would be an exaggeration to say that I expected Chief Walter to fall into this latter category, but it certainly didn’t surprise me.

But now we have the portentous-sounding “threat assessment team” and indeed the university system’s General Counsel getting into the act. These people should know better. It is more than a little distressing that they do not. This is where I yield to Ken at Popehat:
If a rational person wouldn’t take it as an actual threat of violence, then it’s not a true threat that can be censored, however much the hysterical, irrational, nanny-stating, coddling, or professionally emo think about it, and however much university chancellors would like to believe otherwise….

A system in which what we can say is premised upon the likely reactions of the mentally ill and the undernourished pussywillows of the world is a system that encourages suppression of all unpopular, forceful, interesting, or challenging speech. The irrational and the morally and mentally weak are not entitled to have their feelings protected through the force of law, however prevalent they are on campus….

If your “UW System Legal Counsel” told you that these posters could be censored based on their content, then stop hiring lawyers out of the back of a bait shop.
Anyway, about the same time as Walter and the Minions launched into their tap-dance routine, Dr. Miller brought FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) on board. FIRE is best known for rallying around right-wing students whose tender sensibilities have been affronted by rationality (expecting students in a biology class to articulate the principles of evolution, for example), but, like the ACLU from the other direction, they actually do believe in a philosophy rather than an ideology. In other words, they really do care about free expression. And, alas, I must tell you that in my experience there have been more assaults on academic freedom and 1st amendment rights on campus from the left than the right.

Anyway, this is right up FIRE’s alley, and they blasted away with an article on their website and an all-out publicity blitz, sending an open letter to Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen of the Stout campus, and enlisting directly or indirectly the assistance of actors Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion from the “Firefly” series (that’s Fillion on the poster), plus such decidedly disparate sites as and Gawker. (Gawker’s story is particularly snarky and therefore dear to my heart.) Unfortunately, rather than listen to reason or to argumentation (and derision) from the left, right, and center, Chancellor Sorensen punted.

He and his equally craven, hubristic, and vacuous senior staff—Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes—sent an e-mail to all faculty and staff at the Stout campus, attempting to spin their thuggishness, repressiveness, and outright fatuousness into something comprehensible if not noble. I include the entire e-mail here, with my commentary inset and in brackets:
There have been recent news reports about an incident in which two posters hung by a UW-Stout professor outside his office were removed by campus police. There are some important points to consider in the wake of these incidents:
[Indeed, there are…]
UW-Stout administrators believe strongly in the right of all students, faculty and staff to express themselves freely about issues on campus and off. This freedom is fundamental on a public university campus.
[Then STFU.]
However, we also 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.
[Bullshit. The first poster was removed before any such consultation, and everything after that came as a result of trying to justify that initial stupidity. So, first of all, stop lying. Secondly, if you think those posters “constituted an implied threat of violence,” you are barely intelligent enough to feed yourself, let alone sit behind a desk—even as students—at a reputable university. Finally, it is not your “responsibility” to enforce a threat-free environment, certainly not if the standard for an “implied” threat is what the most moronic reader (such as yourselves) might contort a perfectly innocuous expression into potentially meaning.]
This was not an act of censorship. This was an act of sensitivity to and care for our shared community, and was intended to maintain a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure.
[True, technically this was not an act of censorship. That would imply that the state qua state was prohibiting free expression. No, you gaggle of dimwits are acting not as the state but as employer, thereby possibly rendering your inanity legal, although still ethically unsupportable and professionally incompetent. And puh-leeze, spare me your sanctimony, your sensitivity, and your caring. Give me instead, please, an institution that values reason, personal liberties, and the free exchange of ideas… because this ain’t it, and an out-of-the-closet intellectual such as myself does not feel the slightest bit “welcome, safe, [or] secure” in this “shared community.” Indeed, you three, the chief of police, and the general counsel all terrify me.]
There is one piece of good news… I have another reason to be happy where I am.

(Thanks to my netfriend Jack Marshall for alerting me to this story. You can read his commentary here and here.)


Jack Marshall said...

Great work, Rick, as usual. I wonder if the campus itself is up in arms about this? Gotta check...

James said...

I have to disagree with your assessment of the Chancellor's (what an appropriate job title, under the circumstances, right?) claim of non-censorship. If the University were acting as employer, then reprimands and threats of disciplinary action would come through his superior, and would not include the threat of criminal charges. Instead, they came through the campus police, who at most state colleges and universities are legally police officers rather than rent-a-cops as at most private schools, and did include the possibility of charges. That means the University is acting in the capacity of law enforcement agency, which means that censorship is the appropriate term.

tera said...

I so appreciate the tone of this article. I also like Gawker's suggestion that the campus be plastered with such posters a la art installation. In fact, if I lived anywhere near there I would gladly assist.
Good grief.

manjushri924 said...

Point taken, James. I'm still not convinced the university's actions are inherently illegal or unconstitutional, but you've successfully shaken any certainty I had about even that small refuge for the Stout administration.