Civil Liberties

The Clear and Present Danger Posed by Space Captains


James Miller, a theater professor at the University of Wisconsin in Stout, is a fan of Firefly, Joss Whedon's short-lived science fiction series. Evidently Lisa A. Walter, the school's chief of police, is not. After Miller put a Firefly poster on his office door, Walter removed it, perceiving it as a clear and present danger to public safety. The poster shows Nathan Fillion as Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, captain of the spaceship at the center of Firefly. Superimposed over the image of Reynolds is a line he utters in the first episode: "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." (This is Reynolds' response to a question from a prospective passenger: "I'm trying to put this as delicately as I can…how do I know you won't kill me in my sleep?") In a September 16 email message to Miller, Walter explained that "it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing." When Miller asked her to "respect my first amendment rights," Walter claimed the poster was not covered by the First Amendment:

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.

To protest Walter's censorship, Miller put up an orange warning poster parody that shows the outline of a cop beating a prone man. "WARNING: FASCISM," it says in big type. "Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death," it continues in a box at the bottom. "Keep fascism away from children and pets." At this point Walter chuckled, seeing the error of her hasty decision, and apologetically returned Miller's Firefly poster. Just kidding. She took down the new poster too, explaining her rationale in a September 20 email message:

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. 

Miller has been summoned to discuss "the concerns raised by the campus threat assessment team" with Raymond Haye, interim dean of his college, on Friday. Meanwhile, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is asking the administration to back off and respect Miller's freedom of speech. It notes that, contrary to Walter's implication, neither of Miller's posters constitutes a "true threat," which is a statement in which "the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals."