Poster ignites controversy at UW-Stout — and beyond
Like the series it was named for, a poster on Professor James Miller’s office door has ignited a fire of controversy and started a chain of events that began Sept. 16. And the story has now gone global. Websites, blogs, TV, radio and other news sources have picked up the story.
The poster was removed by campus police, as was another poster that followed. This is the chronology of events as they unfolded:
The UW-Stout theater professor posted a picture of Nathan Fillion from the TV series “Firefly” on his office door on Sept. 12. The poster included a quote from the character “Mal” that 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.”
On Sept. 16, UW-Stout Chief of Police Lisa Walter removed the poster. In an e-mail to Miller at 9:52 a.m. the same day, she said she had knocked on his door to notify him, but he was not in his office. She said she didn’t know if he had posted the picture or if someone else had, adding, “but it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.”
At 10:30 a.m., via email, Miller replied saying, “Unacceptable to whom? How dare you act in a fascistic manner and then sign your email ‘respecfully!’ Respect liberty and respect my First Amendment rights.”
At 11:29 a.m., Walter responded that she appreciated and understood the First Amendment, but also understood her responsiblities as the Chief of Police at UW-Stout regarding postings that refer to violence and/or harm.
“My actions are appropriate and defendable,” she wrote. “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.”
Walter continued that she was willing to schedule a meeting with Miller. But, she added, “If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct.”
At 2:34 p.m., Miller emailed Walter a movie file of Firefly, described by some as a “space western” series, to provide context for the quote. He asked her to share it “with whoever constitutes the balance of the ‘we’ that you reference.”
He continued, “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.” He signed it, “Pax vobiscum.”
Miller then put up a second poster on Sept. 16 with “Warning: Fascism” as its title. Under the graphic of a police officer attacking a prone civilian with a club were the words: “Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.”
The university removed the poster, citing implied threat of violence.
Walter e-mailed Miller again on Sept. 20 about the poster removal saying, “it depicts violence and mentions violence and death.” She also said that UW-Stout’s threat assessment team had consulted with the universtiy’s general counsel office and had made the decision.
Alerted by an unknown individual, on Sept. 20, Interim Dean Raymond Hayes e-mailed Miller about the poster’s removal. Hayes cited “concerns raised by the campus threat assessment team” and said it was essential to meet for a discussion about the situation on Sept. 26 in his office, along with Walter.
Miller then contacted FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), a nonprofit education foundation that takes up campus issues for students and faculties that involve civil rights and civil liberties, for counsel. Miller told The News that he had felt isolated and that is why he approached FIRE, for its specialty of First Amendment causes. He said FIRE was eager to get involved and take up his case. “FIRE picked up this case in 15 minutes,” he said.
On Sept. 21, Adam Kissel, FIRE vice president of programs, dashed off a letter to Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, asking for an end to the university censorship of Miller’s speech, an apology to Miller, and to rescind the meeting request. As of Sept. 26, FIRE said Sorensen had not responded.
In the lengthy missive, Kissel said, “UWS’s censorship of Professor Miller and its attempts to intimidate him by threatening criminal charges are outrageous violations of Miller’s First Amendment rights.” Supreme Court cases were cited as examples.
“FIRE asks that you fulfill UWS’s moral and legal obligations to the First Amendment and common sense,” Kissel continued. “UWS must immediately end its censorship of Miller’s protected speech and should immediately apologize to Miller for threatening criminal charges against him. ... FIRE hopes to solve this matter amicably and swiftly, but we are committed to using all of our resources to bring about a just resolution in Professor Miller’s case. Please spare the University of Wisconsin-Stout the embarrassment of a public fight against the Bill of Rights.”
According to FIRE, upwards of 500 e-mails were sent to Sorensen in support of Miller’s rights.
In an e-mail to faculty and staff on Sept. 27, Sorensen, along with Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes, defended UW-Stout’s removal of the posters, stating that the “posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. ... 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 responsiblity to promote a campus enviroment 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.
Denying that removal of the posters was an act of censorship, the memo concluded. “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.”
In a phone interview on Wednesday, Miller said the meeting — originally set for Monday and rescheduled to Friday — to discuss the posters was eventually cancelled. However, he noted that he was also informed that the university reserved the right to hold meetings in the future.
Mell said, “We just decided that there really isn’t a reason to meet anymore. The posters are down and, as far as we are concerned, the situation is concluded. There’s really no reason to meet.”
According to Miller, the campaign by FIRE was responsible for the meeting cancellation. Miller has not received an apology from UW-Stout and said he has no idea what the university’s personnel file on him contains, pertaining to disciplinary action.
Miller said the emails and phone calls he has received have been “100 percent” in support of his First Amendment rights. Messages from groups, organizations and individuals have come from not only UW-Stout, but from around the world.
Talk, not provocation
The Firefly poster, he said, was intended as “an invitation to talk,” and was not meant to be provocative. Miller said this summer, after repeated comments by friends and family that he would enjoy watching Firefly, he “took the plunge”and began to watch the show. He said he “discovered this whole geek world of Firefly” and became a fan of the FOX TV sci-fi series that ran for a season nearly 10 years ago and has since been watching the entire collection.
“I saw what all the fuss was about,” he said. “And people turned me on to this.”
He said there is a big contingent of followers intrigued by the series’ writing and premise, and he found the poster to be a way to connect with many on campus, feeling that it would have a “resonance” with them. Miller said he looked forward to “face-to-face” casual conversations that could have possibly segued into more academic matters.
Miller, who describes himself as a pacifist and nonviolent, said he became a vegetarian years ago, after coming to the decision: ‘I’m not going to hurt things. I absolutely will live a life where I don’t hurt things.”
He gave up hunting for that reason, and now practices catch-and-release when fishing.
“I’m very seriously dedicated to a nonviolent lifestyle,” he said. “I really take umbridge when someone says, ‘Well, I think you’re a threat.’”
After describing the Firefly pilot, including plot and characters, Miller defended his choice of poster, saying, “All this was, was a choice of what I thought was a very poignant, well-worded phrase about fairness, and about not being violent, unless there is, in fact, an equal threat to you.” He described the backstory as having a “code of honor” which really appealed to him.
The poster, he says, simply was to let the legions of Firefly devotees know he had been converted to the series, in essence pointing out to them: “OK, I watched your show. I’m one of you now.”
Miller said he hoped the students would see they had common ground with him and the dialogue could commence.
Ironically, from Miller’s standpoint, the poster that was meant to be implicit of nonviolence became the subject of implied violence. The drama teacher found it to be theater of the absurd.
And also ironically, the poster’s quote that was to be the impetus of face-to-face conversations with students, because “people don’t talk to each other any more... they text and e-mail,” backfired into a trail of online communications with faculty instead.
But not so ironically, people still defend what they believe in, no matter what stance they choose.
Head: Assessing a threat
UW-Stout Police Chief Lisa Walter declined to comment to The News, referring all queries to Doug Mell, of UW-Stout’s University Communications. In a phone interview on Wednesday, Mell said that the two main members of the threat assessment team are Dean of Students Joan Thomas and Walter. Other people they call in or meet with may include the human resources director, head of counseling, any of the deans of the colleges, health and safety people, and “whoever they believe is needed to get involved and help make a decision.” Mell said he was present at the threat assessment team meeting on Sept. 19, as were Interim Dean Raymond Hayes and Provost Julie Furst-Bowe.
Credit: SUBMITTED ILLUSTRATION / For Dunn County News
Cutline-Firefly poster: This is the first poster removed from the door of Professor Jim Miller’s office door at UW-Stout.
Cutline-Fascism poster: After the poster depicting a character from the Firefly television series was taken down, Professor Jim Miller reacted by tacking this one up on the door of his UW-Stout office. It, too, was removed.