What's The Law? It's What University of Wisconsin-Stout Administrators Feel That It Is, On Any Given Day. (Updated to Analyze UWS's Sudden Retreat)
Last month I wrote about how the University of Wisconsin-Stout ("UWS") tore down Professor James Miller's Firefly poster upon the silly pretext that it represented a threat, threatened him with arrest, then tore down another poster decrying fascism and threatened him over that poster as well. I also wrote about how UWS, once called out, simply doubled down, offering academic double-speak about "a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure."
Have UWS or its officials gotten smarter? No. No, they have not.
The FIRE has continued to cover the case, and their efforts, together with those of Firefly luminaries like Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, have resulted in substantial negative publicity and many, many emails to UWS.
But UWS has not budged in the face of widespread condemnation and ridicule. Rather, it has offered additional, and even more offensive, justifications for its clear violations of the First Amendment.
UWS has a spokesperson. Now, given the quality of their law enforcement in the person of Captain Lisa A. Walter and their leadership in the person of Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, it should not come as a surprise that UW-Stout Spokesman Doug Mell is either an idiot or or a born censor. As the FIRE points out, Mell was quick to defend censorship with traditional — and meritless — tropes. Referring to the first poster with Fillion in his Capt. Mal Reynolds character, here's what Mell had to say:
The university is standing by its actions.
"The word ‘kill' is in there," UW-Stout spokesman Doug Mell said. "There's no question about that."
OK — the word "kill" is out. So — no Henry VI Part II quotes. And yet — there's something not quite right. Because Adam Baldwin (Jayne himself) and Liberty Chick, writing at Big Hollywood, pointed out that in February of this year, UWS officials — including Captain Walter — had no problem with a movie poster using the word "kill" and referencing imaginary violence. Specifically, protestors against Governor Scott Walker's public union bill appropriated a vivid poster from the movie "Kill Bill," featuring Uma Thurman holding a katana in a not particularly friendly way, with the caption changed to "Kill The Bill." What was the response of UWS, and Captain Walter, back then?
“The neat part of working in a university is that folks get to have their voices heard, and we try to make sure that it’s done in a manner that’s orderly and doesn’t disrupt the rest of the operations too much,” she said.
Whatever could have happened in so few months to change UWS's — and Walter's — view of the meaning of the word "kill?" Was Derrida involved?
Moving right along, after tearing down the Firefly poster, UWS next tore down a poster warning of violence by authorities. What does Mell have to say about that?
"The second poster was taken down because obviously it depicts violence," Mell said.
Why yes. It depicts violence by fascists, against presumed dissidents. Are UWS and their Mouth-of-Sauron Mell really saying that all depictions of violence are unacceptable on a poster because they constitute a threat or disruption? Is this famous image a threat or a disruption? Is this? Is this?
UWS, through Mell, also resorted to the classic "this is all about outside agitators" rhetoric. It's really nice seeing that still get some play; I thought it fell out of favor after the civil rights era.
"All the responses are coming from groups, individuals outside of campus and most of them from outside Wisconsin," Mell said. "It really has generated very little controversy on campus."
Finally, Mell also demonstrated a professional censor's loathsome willingness to slither upon upon the headstones of victims of violence to justify broad and unprincipled censorship:
Mell defended the university's actions in light of violence at two universities in the past four years and the responsibility for campus officials to take threats seriously.
"That changed the landscape," he said. "Our action has to be viewed in the context of post-Virginia Tech and post-Northern Illinois."
And there you have it: the ultimate airhorn argument, the ultimate request — by a putative institution of higher learning, no less — that people just stop asking questions and arguing about the rule of law and just THINK OF THE CHILDREN!
I suppose we could imagine a poster that constitutes a true threat — that is, "a statement, written or oral, [made] in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily harm." These posters don't qualify. No rational person would see either one as an expression of serious intent to commit bodily harm. Nor is there any indication whatsoever that either poster could be censored on some other basis, for instance, on the grounds that they were intended and likely to provoke imminent lawless action. There is no "think of the tragedy at [x]!" exception to the First Amendment, thank God.
This was a pure expression of UWS's dislike for the message, and perhaps, for the messenger. Captain Walter's excuses, Chancellor Sorensen's justifications, and PR flack Bell's blather all lead to the same conclusion: UWS thinks that it has the right to censor expression if its officials believe, in some subjective and unprincipled sense, that the expression is a "threat" by some vague and lawless standard they can't even articulate.
The problem is threefold.
First, representatives of a government institution — one that ought to be steadfast in defense of free expression — disregard the rule of law. Moreover, they are promoting ignorance of fundamental legal principles among their students. That's vile.
Second, because UWS's standard is based on the subjective and unprincipled (not to mention ridiculous) reactions of officials of dubious acuity, it is impossible to know what speech at UWS is permitted and what is forbidden, and thus impossible to conform conduct to the standard. In short, in deciding whether you can hang a poster or hoist a sign or raise a flag, you need to guess what is in the beautiful minds of people like Walter and Sorensen — a grim and speculative task at best. Speech laws that are vague — or that condition speech on the discretion of the government — are unconstitutional. Note that professional censors want speech laws to be vague, because they want to increase their power to single out speech they don't like, and want you to be afraid to speak out for fear you might inadvertently break their laws.
That brings us to the third point — censorship based on vague, subjective, unprincipled rules chills all speech. You might be willing to put up a poster at UWS with the word "kill" on it, or a reference to violence. But if you are on a scholarship, or working your way through school, or otherwise vulnerable, would you feel safe doing so, knowing that UWS asserts a right to decide, based on whimsical and poetical factors, what speech is permitted and what is not? Or might you be chilled from speaking at all? The Walters, Sorensens, and Mells of the world — to the extent they even give a shit — hope that it is the former.
UWS administrators hope this will blow over.
It shall not.
What can you do?
1. Write UWS a firm but civil email. The contact information is through the FIRE link.
2. Help to publicize UWS's conduct through social media, forums, newsgroups, and word of mouth.
3. Don't let people like Walter, Sorensen, or Mell get away with anonymous censorious thuggery. Call them out by name.
EDITED TO ADD: I may just have been overtaken by events. Stay tuned.
EDITED AGAIN: UWS has caved. Sort of. Their statement, on their facebook wall:
The following statement was sent today to students, faculty and staff from Chancellor Sorensen, Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes regarding the "Firefly" poster incident:
The recent discussion resulting from the removal of two posters hanging outside the door of a University of Wisconsin-Stout professor in Harvey Hall has raised serious First Amendment concerns, both on campus and across the country.
It is important to note that the posters were not removed to censor the professor in question. Rather, they were removed out of legitimate concern for the violent messages contained in each poster and the belief that the posters ran counter to our primary mission to provide a campus that is welcoming, safe and secure.
In retrospect, however, it is clear that the removal of the posters — although done with the best intent — did have the effect of casting doubt on UW-Stout’s dedication to the principles embodied in the First Amendment, especially the ability to express oneself freely. As many people have pointed out in the days since this issue surfaced, a public university must take the utmost care to protect this right.
Therefore, UW-Stout has reconsidered its decision to remove the two posters from outside the professor’s office, meaning he can display them if he so chooses.
The administration also is reviewing its procedures for handling these kinds of cases, and a new protocol is being developed in the hopes that a similar situation can be avoided in the future. Furthermore, the UW-Stout Center for Applied Ethics will schedule workshops and/or forums during this academic year on First Amendment rights and responsibilities in higher education.
For more than a century, UW-Stout has embraced the First Amendment, and we now reaffirm our support for the First Amendment rights for all of our students, faculty and staff.
Some of this is good, some of this is bad.
First: the good. They let Prof. Miller put the posters back up. They are "reviewing procedures" and offering education on the First Amendment, which is excellent.
Second: the bad. They are still offering justifications for their conduct, rather than either admitting mistakes or at least remaining silent. Those justifications are still misleading and meritless, and still demonstrate the dangers of vague and unprincipled standards. Through the statement, Chancellor Sorensen suggests that the removal of the posters was valid, but created a "false impression" that UWS is not sufficiently devoted to the First Amendment. That's untrue and misleading. For the reasons cited in this post, and my prior posts, and FIRE's posts, it is absolutely clear that there was no "legitimate concern for the violent messages contained in each poster." Moreover, a "belief that the posters ran counter to our primary mission to provide a campus that is welcoming, safe and secure" is not a valid basis for government censorship. The bad part of this statement is that through it UWS continues to promote ignorance and misconceptions about free speech principles, and leaves a censorious chill in the air.
I give it a C-.
Edited again: Adam Kissel at FIRE covers the UWS retreat. I think Adam and FIRE are too kind here, for the reasons above, but that disagreement is seasoned with my respect and admiration for their hard work
Edited again: And an update with a great quote from Nathan Fillion..
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