This site will work and look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

Whedonesque - a community weblog about Joss Whedon
"The danger room is angry."
11973 members | you are not logged in | 07 July 2020


September 26 2011

Firefly, the First Amendment and Fascism. A University of Wisconsin theater professor was threatened with charges of disorderly conduct for posting a famous Firefly quotation on his office door. Discuss.

I couldn't past why anyone would want to put that quote on their door in the first place. But I'm guessing that there's a whole lot of history going on here that we don't know about.
Wow. Seriously? I'm glad I don't go to school there. I prefer places that allow you to learn things and think for yourself. I already have parents, thanks. If anything, I'd say the first poster promotes a few things:
1. Strong integrity and determination to stand up for what's right, provided the fight is fair and equal.
2. Clear communication of one's identity and purpose (I wish more people just laid things out plainly like this).
3. Good taste in science fiction entertainment.

The second poster also promotes a few things:
1. Intelligence (Anyone with half a brain can see this for what it clearly is).
2. A sense of humor.
3. Perspective (as in, "Don't complain about the first poster, or I'll give you something to complain about. It can always be worse).

If common sense and decency don't prevail, I would find another institution to teach in if I were that professor. One that encourages and lives by the things I listed above. If it does prevail, I would then put BOTH posters back up, side-by-side.
Simon, I wondered the same things too, why would you put that on your door, and whether this professor has a history of whackjob behavior that could explain the heavy handed approach that the school took towards the poster. But at the same time, here in the USA, there is a practice of responding to freak school shooting incidents with over-aggressive "zero-tolerance" attitudes towards any mere whiff of violence. So who knows.

IMO, the guy should have responded to the first takedown with a new "I Aim to Misbehave" poster.
It's probably not a great poster to put up in a school.
and whether this professor has a history of whackjob behavior that could explain the heavy handed approach that the school took towards the poster.

If it had got to that stage here in the UK, then it would mean that all the grievances procedures had failed and that the union could do nothing to intervene between the academic and senior management. The publicity wouldn't do the university any favours and I think ultimately it wouldn't help the academic either.
The sad thing is that it could have been handled much better through informal means. For example, the campus police officer could have casually stopped by while the guy was in his office and gently asked, "Um, what exactly are you trying to communicate with that poster? Because in country that has experienced things like the UVA and the Columbine massacres, or Dr. George Tiller being assassinated at his church, or Rep. Gabby Giffords getting shot in the face at a public appearance, featuring a quote about shooting someone in the face might make some people a bit twitchy. Is that really how we want people in our school to feel?" Framing the issue in that way would have given the professor an opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of the first poster and rectified the situation himself.
I'm with those of you who wonder why the guy put up the poster in the first place. That said, while I don't want to defend the university's handling of this, considering the fact that some states have already approved allowing students carry concealed weapons on campus, and others are promoting such legislation,I can understand the thinking of the university in trying to stave off potential violence and lawsuits. It's a no-win situation for universities.
It's a wonderful quote in the context of the series, but like Simon, I'm a little baffled why one would display it on their office door.
Read the emails between the police and the professor. He pulls out the fascism card in his very first email reply. He's a bit the loon.
"I am a committed pacifist and a devotee of non-violence".

OK, if the guy is seriously committed to non-violence, then it is a *really* odd quote to post on his office door. But again, I go back to the thought that instead of immediately censoring him, the university should have challenged him to explain what exactly he wanted to communicate by it.
"I said if! IF I kill you, and it would only ever be an issue within those very specific circumstances!" :)

Maybe as a tough, but fair professor, he should have pulled from Serenity instead: "Don't push me, and I won't push you."

Or, how about this? "If someone tries to kill you, you try to kill 'em right back!" It supports the same practice as the original poster (self defense), while also not being so confrontational and/or hostile, since there is no "You against I" connotation.

Maybe all he just wanted to convey with the poster was, "I like Firefly and I like this line"?

OH! I've got it! He's a theater professor, right? So:
"Everybody plays each other. That's all anybody ever does. We play parts."

[ edited by kungfubear on 2011-09-26 19:17 ]

[ edited by kungfubear on 2011-09-26 19:29 ]
Universities are legally able to impose some additional restrictions without incurring First Amendment violations -- and I'm with the crowd saying that this guy is fighting the wrong battles. Seriously? Over a poster?
Sure, but in this case, doesn't that go both ways? "Seriously? Over a poster?" Couldn't it be argued at this point that two wrongs don't make a right?
Over a poster? Yes. If they feel that the poster in question could insight a danger to their students, they are well within their rights to do so. It's the 'ole US Supreme Court stance of the right to yell "fire" in a movie theater.

And I'm with Simon at the very beginning... What are the motives for this? That it's funny? Considering how quickly he pulled the facism card, I'm inclinde to believe he was looking for a fight. It may not be true, but that's what his behaviour seems to indicate to me.

I love Captain Mal quotes as much as the next person, but there is such a thing as "in context." Probably well over 95% (made up stat) of the people on this board would understand the context of those quotes. In a college, there's no telling how many people are completely clueless as to what they're reading.

I think those posters are funny... at a CSTS event. I think they're confusing on a professor of a public university's door.
"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."

I think that quote is apropos for a professors door because it says to his students, I don't take any sh!t but I'm fair. (i.e. Dear Freshman, I'm not gonna shoot you in the back)

This whole issue sounds like college administrators being administrators. If they don't cover their asses, something will happen and they will ultimately be held accountable for "allowing" it to happen.
I'd say the professor seriously lacks sensitivity and judgement. Much as I adore Firefly, I know the vast majority of people attending college have never seen it or heard of it and consequently are not going to understand the context of the quote. Coming upon that quote cold, on a professors door, given the reality of campus life in the 21st Century, would be IMO unnecessarily aggressive and threatening. That said, the situation sure is being handled poorly. There's no reason for it to have escalated to the level that we know about it here in the black. (Although sometimes I think there's always gonna be someone here that knows something about everything. ;-) *takes a moment to enjoy my love of the fandom*)
Yeah I don't see what the big deal is, lecturers have all kinds of weird shit on their office doors and to suggest that a poster, because it talks about killing, is a threat or incitement to anyone is just absurd. The administration's mentality is that of a reactionary tabloid paper or some such, not something I'd expect in a higher education institution.

I think the lecturer has every right to pull the fascism card when his freedom of expression is curtailed for absolutely no good reason. Whether it makes sense to have that quote on your office door doesn't really play a part in the issue.
With due respect digupherbones, most things are absurd that nutty people choose to get wound up about. From an administrative perspective, they look at the possible response, not just the healthy one. Just the immediate emotions I can come up with from that poster (disregarding its actual intent because intent and communicated message don't have to equal) I can get amusement, fear, confusion, or comfort just depending on how I take it, how savvy I am with the quote, and whether or not I can fight past the imagery of someone shooting me. And the administration is not concerned about the Professor's feelings, they are concerned about paying customers (students) combined with legal liability.

I guess my personal feeling is, if this were truely a point he was trying to make, he could have used the quote in context in class. On a door, it strikes me as an attempt to be funny. The metaphor for the professor himself is not as self evident as some would think even if it is his intent.

IMO facist, nazi, (insert your label here), and hyperbolic rhetoric needs to be saved for people who deserve it. Using it for an administrator who made a decision that the school did not need to sanction one professor's attempt at a humorous statement devalues the term. It demonizes the school, and makes a martyr of the professor. Neither party deserves it.

[ edited by azzers on 2011-09-27 00:52 ]
Put it this way; if somebody put up that poster at my work, even if it was the CEO, I'd take it down and tell them to clue up. There's a time and a place for everything, and I'll keep Mal on my TV.
Of all the Malcolm Reynolds quotes he could have put on his door he chooses that? Really? That seems a bit like he was trying to pick a fight. If he was really trying to be funny and advertise his love for the show there are a crap load of other quotes that would have done that without causing such a big deal.
And it really is all about context. In the context of the show that line is funny and says a lot about Mal's character - that he has integrity and would never shoot an unarmed man in the back. In the real world setting, without the context of the show - it just seems aggressive and kind of scary.
I do not support sensorship but - in this case - I gotta say that both sides are making a mountain out of a molehill. Should have been handled differently on both sides.
As a side note - my former spanish teacher had to take down her poster of Kurt Cobain as a child with his birth and death years on it because the school board didn't want the kids to be exposed to the idolization of someone who committed suicide.
That seems a bit like he was trying to pick a fight.

Kind of like a couple of Browncoats going drinking in an Alliance bar on Unification Day. ;-)

[ edited by BrewBunny on 2011-09-26 23:39 ]
He's a theater professor, meaning that his office is located in the university's Theater Department. Speaking as someone who has spent practically my entire life in just these sorts of locations and who is consequently well versed in the unique collegial atmosphere they engender (and so both the visual and emotional context in which such a poster would be viewed) I'd say that someone here needs to grow a pair - and not the professor.
I'm with brinderwalt.

Yes, the quote is provocative and perhaps rather unfortunate, but as alexreager shows it isn't exactly hard to come up with a sympathetic reading of the poster that has it make sense in its context. While I propably wouldn't have put it up myself, IMO it's hardly indefensible behaviour.

Like digupherbones I feel that it is quite sad that a university felt the need to take down the first poster. Again, it's far from indefensible, but it is a sad state of affairs when a university has to take into account unhealthy reaction to a thing like this.

After the removal of the first poster, I think basically everyone's in the wrong. The teacher for crying Facist over such a minor issue and the campus police for removing the second poster (which really seemed quite harmless to me, really can't imagine the harm that one could have done).
Freedom of speech is becoming a distant dream in the increasingly repressive academic environment.
Innappropriate poster.
I agree with missmuffet. There are so many other quotes to use, and this particular quote loses a lot in translation. I think a more appropriate quote would be "Government: a body of people, usually notably ungoverned."
I work at a college. I've known colleagues who have been threatened with weapons by students who were disgruntled over their grades. That's not fantasy; that's a fact of life for every educator in the US today, from junior high up. All of us lost whatever naievety we had post-Columbine, and then again post-Virginia Tech.

The quote is wonderful in the context of the show, but I've actually mentioned Firefly in my classes, and in five years I've had two students who even heard of it, letalone would be familiar with the quotation. Because the context has changed by bringing it to people who have no knowledge of the other meaning, the meaning has changed. It could most certainly be viewed as a threat. Frankly, even knowing the context and being a big Firefly fan, if I had a student walk into class wearing that particular quote on a t-shirt, I admit, I would be nervous.

I agree that the college handled it inappropriately. There are more polite ways to do things, and there should have been a tactful conversation, ideally. Granted, nothing at college level is ideal anymore, and everything from changing a textbook to getting the coffee maker fixed is usually handled by preprinted, impersonal letters that have gone through the legal department with a fine tooth comb to be sure there is an adequate paper trail if there's a lawsuit.

Being concerned about what to an outsider would appear to be an invitation to a duel along with a declaration that the professor is armed and enjoys shooting people in the face isn't being paranoid. Unfortunately, that scenario could easily happen. The college would have been remiss not to say something (and I'd point out this was almost certainly the result of a student or staff complaint that they would legally have to follow up on).
Someone wrote to us to say:

a controversial and debated conceal and carry law goes into effect 1 November state wide, universities were up for exclusion from the law (that firearms would be automatically banned from campuses), but the amendment was voted down. My take on it was it might have been a preemptive jab at what's to come.

USA, the land of the free (but can't put up posters about a series, home of the brave (who get so scared about the said posters they call the police).

Now, it can be argued whether the poster showed good taste, but removal of it is just ridiculous. And yes, maybe the professor was picking a fight, maybe not. But some fights have to be fought, or we end up in a world where 6-year old boy can be apprehended by the police for sexual assault and child porn for trying to kiss a 6-year old girl. Wait, silly me, we are there already. Maybe the professor should just bend over...
There's fighting the good fight and then fighting the good fight is such a way that you're not going to get much support. Choose your battles wisely.
Questionable choice of poster quote, as it doesn't really make much sense out of context. Disturbing over-reaction. It's one thing to sit the guy down and say "hey, uh...that poster, maybe not the message we want to put in this school...could you maybe replace it with some other quote of a less violent nature?". It's another thing entirely to press criminal charges.
I'm with the people who don't understand why the professor put up this quote in the first place. But I'm also not among the people who would consider Mal a role model. He's one of TV's most questionable heroes. That makes him interesting. Putting up this poster seems to be a pretty moronic "wow! that guy is cool! He's so badass!" reaction th his character. Not handled well by the administration,yes, but I certainly see the point in asking him to take it down.

But the most annoying thing about this is that the professor obviously has no clue about what fascism is. Fascism is not the same as censorship. If you cry fascism everytime you feel censored, it's just a disgusting belittlement of the true evils of fascism. It seems to be an American thing that people think they can call everything they don't like within the political sphere fascism, oblivious to the fact that fascism involves a whole lot more - aggressive nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarian government, an anti-individualistic ideology, nearly always some form of racism or anti-Semitism ...
Going by the quote from Simon above I'd say it's pretty clear what the professor intended to express: ironic opposition to a new law allowing concealed weapons on campus.

Once again i'm reminded of that age old stereotype about Americans and irony...
Is it clear? Then why didn't the professor or FIRE actually mention it?
But the most annoying thing about this is that the professor obviously has no clue about what fascism is. Fascism is not the same as censorship. If you cry fascism everytime you feel censored, it's just a disgusting belittlement of the true evils of fascism. It seems to be an American thing that people think they can call everything they don't like within the political sphere fascism, oblivious to the fact that fascism involves a whole lot more - aggressive nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarian government, an anti-individualistic ideology, nearly always some form of racism or anti-Semitism ...

After reading the guy's email where he went straight to "fascist!" in the first sentence, I couldn't help but think of the Michael Palin peasant character in The Holy Grail shouting "Help, help! I'm being oppressed!"

But back to the topic, Simon's right. Based on what's reported so far, none of us have any clue what exactly the guy was attempting to communicate with the poster. If he actually did intend some kind of political expression behind the poster, then it would behoove him to share that message with the rest of the class. If he doesn't have any, then all he was doing with that poster was contributing to a hostile educational and work environment for students and other professors, in which case the university could be argued to have an obligation to take it down.

Say for example, instead of posting a poster about shooting a person in the face, the guy posted this month's Hustler centerfold on his office door. In that case, would anyone criticize the university for telling the guy he needs to take it down? Unless you can articulate some kind of plausible political speech behind it, the US Supreme Court is pretty clear that tittie pictures on the wall in a public workspace is a no-no.
I am with meltha. I also work in a college and we recently had a case where a student brought a gun to school. Inadvertantly, he said, but there it was. And I live only about 75 miles from Northern Illinois University, which had a fatal shooting not long ago which made national news. I am a First Amendment supporter. This is not a First Amendment issue. School has a right to remove the poster. It should. I know it is mean a certain way- but remember, I am an authorial intent person- the way it is meant is not necessarily how it will be read.
The bottom line is that this just serves as a reminder that a free society is only free when it doesn't infringe on someone else's rights to freedom. In this case, the right of the students and faculty to not be intimidated (or scared) by someone in a position of power, regardless of the intention, vis-a-vis the professor/student relationship.

Moreover, this situation displays that our freedoms are intact. That said, I dont think the crux of this issue is an offensive quote on a door or the fact that the administration had him take it down. Put simply, I think it was a handled poorly by everyone involved; the professor made a bad decision to post that quote and the administration clearly mishandled its removal.
I think that most of the people here are missing the point of the quote. Pretty much all the "alternatives" being presented here deal with fighting back or killing. As alexreager mentioned in an early post, the poster was about treating people fairly in the first place, and not using a position of authority, like being a professor or a head of security, to bully others.

The quote would be inappropriate if it was just the first sentence. The last two sentences make it clear what is really being said. (I guess it would help if we knew what else was on the poster, that might make the quote inflammatory. Is it an image of Mal pointing a gun at the viewer? Or is he leaning back in the captain's chair talking to Simon?)
This has been quite the interesting discussion...

I don't get the context issue. I don't think it takes a lot of context to see that the quote says "If I ever kill you " ... "you'll be armed." To me the only ones that should feel intimidated by the professor, are those who intend to threaten the professor to begin with. I feel pretty confident that if I didn't know Firefly or the quote, I'd start off looking at that poster going 'why is it talking about killing people... oh I don't intend on threatening anyone, I'm fine'.

It seems likely now that it has to do with his feelings on the passing the conceal and carry law, but when I read it yesterday I felt it boiled down to either 1) love of the show (in which case, yeah it probably would've been easier to pick a different quote) or 2) a metaphor for how he feels as a professor. He isn't going to blindside his students, or like what alexreager said above.

One place where I do want to see context thought of is instead of labeling him crazy for his email responses, I'd label him as dramatic, seeing as how he is a theater professor...

I don't think it should've been taken down. I like getting a sense of a professor's personalities by looking at what is up on their walls inside and out of the office. (What you do when you have a small time gap between two classes in the same building). Both sides did handle it kind of poorly though. I do have sensitivity to school shootings. I was in tears all day of the VT shootings, even though I had absolutely no connection to it, it really affected me... but to me this poster says he's the opposite of someone who is going to go around shooting people for no reason.

I'm starting to think maybe the poster is a test of reading comprehension.
What I think this situation illustrates is, first of all, very sadly, far too many people are unfamiliar with "Firefly."

That said, IMHO, a quote including "me," "you" and "killing" all in one related phrase should not be on an office door in an institution of learning. This door is not in the man's home or on his private property; it is in a building owned and operated by the college. I can see where the school authorities would say, "You know, we are ultimately responsible for what's on this door and, uh, no." However, a criminal charge is going waaaaaay too far.
Once again i'm reminded of that age old stereotype about Americans and irony...

And what would that be?
Meaning some believe we don't got any. ; ]

I rather liked this coverage of the incident.
QuoterGal, I like the (joke) comment posted, that police chief Lisa probably has the original poster (with Nathan Fillion) hanging in her bedroom, and had to come up with a reason why she took it.
That A.V. Club write-up and that joke comment indeed both are pretty hilarious, QuoterGal and OneTeV.
I most particularly love the translation they included of the Latin Pax vobiscum.
Yeah, I think that was one of my favorite things, too, DreamRose311 - that, and the description of the school as "...a dark and slightly creamy university that pairs surprisingly well with chocolate..."
Hey, isn't River made of chocolate? :)
<--- snip ----> (Troll elsewhere - Simon)

[ edited by Simon on 2011-09-28 07:15 ]
Inappropriate poster quote for the workplace. I like Firefly but the fact that it's a Mal quote doesn't make it suitable or sensible for the setting The sad thing is that all parties could and should have been able to resolve this without it ending up as a news story.

Mind you, the way this term is going I'm tempted to put up a poster saying

"Oh, God! It's been so long since I had a decent spot of violence. Really puts things in perspective."
My quote would be "Oh god, oh god we're all gonna die."
Mine would be "I ain't had nothing twixt my nethers..." but I suspect that one might not fly too well with the college authorities here, of which I am one... :-)
LOL @ Dana5140. That would be my second choice. :)
What about "you can't stop the signal"? I'd thought that would have been perfect.
Dana5140: What would work is a poster skipping *that* line, but keeping the next two comments. Include a picture of Mal flabbergasted and Jayne leering.
"Oh, God! I can't know that!"
"I could stand to hear a little more."

Anyone reading your poster who can fill in the blanks, might be worth talking to. ;-)
(If they don't know the reference, you can claim it is about students listening to a long lecture.)
There is also the ever-popular "I swallowed a bug." This would give the professor a decent excuse to leave any meeting abruptly if he or she felt the need/desire to do so.
OneTEV- I was thinking that! :-)
While I think Walter has the wrong idea, or that the law she is upholding is wrong(I mean, if it's the law, it's the law, but if it's a bad interpretation of the law, that's different) I also think Miller is acting rather immature. Namecalling and yelling? Why not either a) Try to reason with the police, in a reasonable way, or b)try to change the law?
"Under pressure from FIRE, national media, and actors Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin, the University of Wisconsin-Stout (Stout) has reversed its censorship of theater professor James Miller's poster featuring a line from Fillion's character in Joss Whedon's television series Firefly."
It's on the front page.

This thread has been closed for new comments.

You need to log in to be able to post comments.
About membership.

joss speaks back home back home back home back home back home