On Sept. 12, the University of Wisconsin-Stout theater and speech professor Jim Miller put a poster up of a character with a quote from the 2002 American sci-fi TV series, “Firefly.” Miller was later contacted by UW-Stout Chief of Police Lisa Walter via email, letting Miller know that the poster had been taken down due to its “implied threat of violence.” According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, (FIRE), in a series of published emails between Miller and Walter, Walter then threated criminal charges against Miller. “If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct,” Walter wrote.
“The first poster is actually the opposite of a threat if you know it’s context, and the second poster is obviously Miller feeling threatened himself, not issuing a threat,” said UW-Stout professor Tim Shiell, author of “Campus Hate Speech on Trial.”
Four days after his poster being censored by the UW-Stout Police, Miller put up another poster on his door which read: “Warning: Fascism. Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets.”
Another four days later, Miller’s poster was again taken down by Walter, this time because it “depicted violence and mentioned violence and death,” and that the poster may “be constituted as a threat.”
After the second poster was removed, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Interim Dean Raymond Hayes scheduled a meeting with Miller. The meeting was later cancelled. “It sounded like a suspension was going to happen at the cancelled meeting with the Dean,” Miller said.
“I never had any intent to start a media circus with First Amendment rights,” Miller said. He has received approximately 24 to 30 emails from a broad spectrum of people across the country wanting to comment on the situation.
“I have a robust idea of freedom of speech,” said Miller. “What I did is absolutely protected.”
“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,” said the Wisconsin Law Journal.
According to Miller, there are three steps that may be necessary to solve this situation. The first step took place when FIRE wrote a letter on Miller’s behalf to Chancellor Sorensen. The letter expressed that the actions of the University were unacceptable and another course of action should be taken.
On Sept. 27, after this initial letter, Chancellor Sorensen, Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes sent out an email stating, “The posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence.” Publicity campaign, phase two, then went into effect.
“We are here now,” Miller said.
The third phase is litigation. Miller said that this phase would take effect if school officials try to buckle down and don’t do something about what happened. “A real hit to your pocket book should inspire you to rethink,” said Miller. “If it came to litigation, I wouldn’t have trouble finding a lawyer. Lawyers are vying for my case. An awful lot of lawyers have phoned in.”
When asked if Miller believes this situation was motivated by concern or by an attempt to exhibit power, he said that, “Evidence for concern seems to be awfully thin. It doesn’t seem there is a sincere belief of threat on their behalf. It sounds like we have to show [I’m] a threat. We’re already committed to getting [me] for something.”
On Oct. 4, Chancellor Sorensen, Furst-Bowe and Nieskes sent out an email that stated, “UW-Stout has reconsidered its decision to remove the two posters from outside the professor’s office, meaning he can display them if he so chooses. The administration also is reviewing its procedures for handling these kinds of cases, and a new protocol is being developed in the hopes that a similar situation can be avoided in the future. Furthermore, the UW-Stout Center for Applied Ethics will schedule workshops and/or forums during this academic year on First Amendment rights and responsibilities in higher education.”
After the latest development, Miller said “There are many things in the Chancellor’s new memo, but I’m not really sure there was an apology in there, either to me individually or to the campus community; an offense against one is an offense against all. The suggestion that the Ethics Center should educate us all about free speech is a good start, provided that it is the offending officers and administrators who get most of the educating.”
In the end, Miller just wants an agreement to the terms asked for by FIRE. He doesn’t want any retaliation or any reference suggesting he ever committed or got off of a crime. He wants UW-Stout to say they are in error, acknowledge that error as far as they accused him of making an error and he also wants a promise that the University will never make that mistake again.
“I’d like to see everyone on campus see robust, free expression is expected here,” said Miller. “There is a world of as yet unexpressed expression waiting for me and my office door, and the day is young.”