On September 12, 2011, University of Wisconsin at Stout Professor James Miller posted on his office door the image of a character from the TV series Firefly and a quote from the show: “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.”
The campus police chief informed Miller that the poster was removed because “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing” and warned Miller that if he tried to put up the poster again, he could face charges of disorderly conduct.”
Miller put up a second poster that declared “Warning: Fascism” and which stated, “Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.” This poster was also removed after consulting with the campus Threat Assessment Team because it “depicts violence and mentions violence and death.”
Yesterday, Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen sent an email to all faculty and staff at UW-Stout (although he didn’t respond to my request for more information) defending the censorship of the posters:
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. 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. 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.
Obviously, this is an act of censorship. The only question is whether this is one of those extraordinarily rare instances where a violent threat takes the form of a poster and censorship is allowed. It should be clear to everyone that it isn’t.
A theater professor who puts up a poster depicting a TV character and a quote from that TV show is not threatening anyone. The UW-Stout administration so far has not identified anyone who was threatened by this poster. The absurdity of this claim is even more clear in the censorship of the second poster.
Unless the UW-Stout administration believes that Miller is a devotee of fascism who plans to dress up as a police officer and beat up people, it is even more difficult to imagine how this is a threat of violence. Clearly, it is a statement of opposition to police violence. The figure being beaten up represents Miller in his own mind, and that figure is engaging in no violence whatsoever. The UW-Stout administration may not appreciate being accused of fascism, but that is no basis for censoring a poster. Censorship doesn’t make everyone feel welcome, safe and secure. It makes everyone fearful of criticizing the administration.
If violent depictions can be banned, UW-Stout could justify almost any kind of censorship. A ban on violent depictions isn’t limited to posters: it could include art gallery displays, public readings from books depicting violence, or books in the campus bookstore that depict violence.
FIRE has done an admirable job pointing out the Constitutional violations of UW-Stout’s poster bans. But there’s also an important due process issue here. Based on this description online, the Threat Assessment Team is not authorized to deal with faculty and includes no faculty among its members. Also, the Threat Assessment Team does not appear to be empowered to censor posters on campus; its authorization is to help deal with students who may be regarded as a threat, not to censor the views of those students (or to have any connection with faculty).
Under the faculty handbook, section 3-150, punishment of a faculty member deemed to violate rules but not severe enough to warrant dismissal nevertheless requires a detailed set of procedures, including a hearing before the Positive Action Committee. UW-Stout has followed none of its own procedures. If Prof. Miller is a violent threat and a danger to others, then this needs to be proven, and he needs to be punished, not merely have his posters taken down.
The danger of campus violence is real, and colleges in the wake of Virginia Tech must adopt procedures to help address potential threats. But nobody ever stopped a campus shooting by censoring posters. The procedures addressing threats cannot violate academic freedom, and those procedures cannot violate due process. At UW-Stout, rational fear has been replaced by repressive paranoia.