Cue the Shameless Virginia Tech Comparisons: UW-Stout Takes Defense of Unconstitutional Censorship to New, Disgraceful Lows

By September 30, 2011

I sometimes feel for the university spokespersons occasionally called on to defend unpopular decisions by their university—decisions which frequently are made by administrators without any clue about the likely public reaction, necessarily reduced to a set of talking points from which they must try not to depart. 

But then I remember that such persons normally are paid salaries and benefits. And while the rents here in Philadelphia are a much better bargain than in New York or Washington, I’m guessing that the same money probably goes a little further in the greater Menomonie, Wisconsin, area, and that university spokespersons are probably able to live fairly comfortably. Hence I reserve none of my sympathy for the University of WisconsinStout (UWS) spokesperson who has been trotting out the following crock of a defense of UWS’s outrageous censorship of two harmless, satirical posters put up by UWS theater professor James Miller. Miller has been threatened with arrest and has been reported to UWS’s "threat assessment team" simply for putting up the posters. 

When questioned by the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram about the censorship of Miller’s poster of Firefly actor Nathan Fillion, this was the university’s bold defense:

"The word ‘kill’ is in there," UW-Stout spokesman Doug Mell said. "There’s no question about that." 

That’s true. A penetrating insight, and one wholly in line with UWS’s allergy to context and common sense, revealing just how low the bar is set for something to catch the eye of UWS’s police and threat assessment team. (Mind you, the quote in question was actually an explanation that the character would not engage in unwarranted violence, as Robert and dozens of others have pointed out.) 

In the same Leader-Telegram article (also printed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press; free subscription may be required), Mell also defends UWS’s decision to remove the second poster—this one satirizing the university’s overreaction and intimidation in removing the first one. Of this, Mell says that "[t]he second poster was taken down because obviously it depicts violence." As Miller pointed out in the same article, though, "[i]f you read the second poster carefully, it says ‘don’t condone violence.’" I’ll submit that even a non-careful reading will yield the same conclusion, though obviously no amount of hand-holding is enough at UWS.

As we reported yesterday, and as Greg wrote in The Huffington Post, UWS has not heeded FIRE’s warning of the gross unconstitutionality of its censorship and threat to punish Miller, particularly in light of the decades of Supreme Court precedent aligned squarely against the university’s actions. Indeed, UWS has gone to special lengths to make clear that it will not defend the First Amendment right of faculty to engage in the kind of plainly harmless statements that Miller did. 

Why? In the Leader-Telegram, Mell explains that "[o]ur action has to be viewed in the context of post-Virginia Tech and post-Northern Illinois." The sheer offensiveness of this statement, in the context of such clearly non-violent (indeed, anti-violent) expression by Professor Miller, can hardly be overstated. 

The disgrace at UWS is only the latest example of this "magic words" theory, wherein a university seems to think all it needs to do to justify a blatant violation of a student or faculty member’s rights is to invoke the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University and the rest of us will casually shrug it off and credit it as a somehow legitimate response, as if the First Amendment contains an exception for post-tragedy sensitivities. We certainly will notnot when we’ve seen the same fraudulent defense used to such ends as forcing the cancellation of an Arkansas Tech student production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins. ("But just look at the title! It has the word ‘Assassins’ in it!" Can’t you imagine UWS’s Mell saying that?) Arkansas Tech President Robert C. Brown said at the time that the decision was made "out of respect for the families of those victims of the tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, and from an abundance of caution." 

Colorado College set an even worse examplefinding two students responsible for violating the college’s policy against "violence" on the basis of a satirical flyer with playful references to "chainsaw etiquette" and sniper rifles. Then-Colorado College President Richard Celeste steamrolled the two students behind the "Monthly Bag" flyer shortly after the shootings at Northern Illinois, and later exploited the shootings as justification for their bullying and punishment by the college, pointing to the fact that the flyers had appeared "within days of the horrific Valentine’s Day killings at Northern Illinois University." 

And Valdosta State University in Georgia expelled a student who had posted a collage on Facebook making fun of the university’s president for saying that two new parking garages on campus would be his legacy. The title of the collage was "S.A.V.E.  Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage." Well, the president chose to take the word "memorial" as an "indirect threat[]" (as though you have to be dead to get a memorial), invoking Virginia Tech and apparently looking for any reason to punish the student for challenging his presidential legacy.

Not only do these justifications cheapen the very real losses suffered in those terrible tragedies, but at UWS this justification does absolutely nothing to alleviate the fact that the censorship was flagrantly unconstitutional and absurd.

UWS has been sticking to the same story all week. The university posted this statement on its Facebook page on Monday: 

Stout supports the right of its students and employees to express themselves freely. However, UW-Stout also has the responsibility to provide an environment for its students, faculty and staff that is free from threats, either direct or implied.

After consultation with the UW System Office of General Counsel, administrators determined that the posters displayed outside Professor Miller’s door constituted implied threats of violence, and they were removed.

The decision was made in the current context of tragedies on other university campuses, including those at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois.

You don’t need a college education to dismiss as stupid the logic behind UWS’s unconstitutional intimidation and censorship of Professor Miller. And, make no mistake, it’s an appallingly bad argument. But it’s also dangerous. It’s a clear indication of a runaway administration completely out of touch with the obligations and requirements of an institution bound by the First Amendment, indifferent to the harm it has caused by defending its own warped notion of security.     

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Stout Cases: University of Wisconsin – Stout: Censorship, Referral to Threat Assessment Team, and Threat of Criminal Charges after Professor Puts Posters Outside Office Door