Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Commentary / Blogs / THE DARK SIDE: A First Amendment showdown at UW-Stout

THE DARK SIDE: A First Amendment showdown at UW-Stout

This week, Wisconsin is ground zero in the battle between university bureaucrats and free speech champions.

No, I’m not talking about the University of Wisconsin’s attempts to stifle criticism of its admission policies. That’s been going on for years, and will continue for many more.

No, this battle is much less weighty, but far more absurd, and involves a theater professor at UW-Stout.

Apparently, the same guy who made the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series also made some sci-fi show called “Firefly.” I’ve never seen it nor heard of it, but if it was even half as good as “Buffy,” I’m sure it was a grand show. The theater professor is a big fan, though, and put this poster from the show on his office door:

The poster features a picture of the show’s lead character and the following quote from some 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.”

Apparently, that was the character’s response to being asked, “How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?”

It’s hard to see what could be objectionable about that. I think all of us can agree that, barring extraordinary circumstances, a reasonable man should never kill someone who is asleep, running away or unarmed.

But, as we all know from extensive over-education, university bureaucrats are not reasonable people.

So, you guessed it — the university took the poster down. They even threatened the professor with patently unconstitutional disorderly conduct charges. The professor then replaced the poster with another:

In case you didn’t notice during your four years of undergraduate education and three years of law school, university bureaucrats don’t like being called “fascists.” And you also may have noticed that, the bigger the fascists they actually are, the less they like being called “fascists.”

So, of course, the university took the professor’s second poster down, too.

University of Wisconsin-Stout professor Jim Miller stands near his office door which became an area of controversy on the Menomonie campus. (AP Photo/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, Shane Opatz).

There’s a big showdown scheduled for Friday, with the university bureaucrats on one side and the professor, supported by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, on the other.

I have written extensive criticism in the past about the origins and applications of the “true threat” doctrine in First Amendment law, but don’t intend to go into that here and now. In any event, the Supreme Court has expressed no such misgivings and it remains part of our free speech jurisprudence.

But with or without the doctrine, the university’s actions are so far beyond the pale of what is constitutionally permissible. Every lawyer in Wisconsin must be licking his chops for the chance to bring a Section 1983 action against these clowns.

I know I am.

Given the track record of FIRE, however, I suspect this incident will end rather quietly, with the UW-Stout bureaucrats slinking away with their tails between their legs. It sure would be fun, though, if they actually tried to defend what they have done and one of us gets to sue them for it.


  1. David, I am glad to see that I can actually agree with you on this one.

    As for Firefly, both the prematurely aborted series and the subsequent film were terrific. You should check them out if you get the chance. Just be sure to watch the series in the proper order, something the network denied to viewers at the time the show was aired. No wonder they were confused. Oh, and hold off on the film until after you have watched the entire series.

  2. “But, as we all know from extensive over-education, university bureaucrats are not reasonable people.”

    Your greatest line ever.

    Did you ever think of putting that on a poster with the Dean of UW-Stout?

    I’d buy that.

  3. Great article, Mr. Ziemer. Please keep us posted on developments, if you can. And find the time to watch Firefly. It’s amazing stuff (though I echo the poster above; wait until you’ve watched the one-season series before you watch the film, which was Whedon’s response to the series’ premature cancellation).

    Kind Regards,

    Will B.

  4. Agreed. This is a freedom of speech issue and I can see no good reason why this professor’s rights were infringed upon. On the plus side, it did give the professor the opportunity to post the second educational poster.

  5. The first poster’s not even a threat. Imagine that it *is* an outright statement on the teacher’s behalf (just play the lunatics’ game for a minute) – in that case, it is a clear assertion that in order to be in danger from this man, one would need to be armed, facing him, and awake. How is that anything but a rephrasing of ‘don’t threaten me with a weapon, and you’ve got nothing more to fear from me than from anyone else’?

  6. The first poster can be perceived as a threat. It implies that even if you were armed and facing him, he could still kill you.

  7. Setting aside the first poster, the second poster is clearly not a threat or an implied threat, and in the larger public context (that is, of any student walking by, not knowing about the first poster), its sentiments are strictly admirable. (Surely, Stout is not protecting or advocating fascism?) Logically, the poster could not be read as referring to the university administration unless they believe that they are fascists, as there is no reference to the University, UPD, or administration. Also, this is a theater department. Are we to understand that Macbeth or Antigone would be forbidden? What about art? Would Guernica be censored?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *