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The Speech Police Return to Campus



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When government regulates what we can and can’t say, we often complain about the “speech police” shutting us up. But at the University of Wisconsin–Stout, that characterization is literally true.

Earlier this week, campus police showed up at the office of theater professor James Miller to take down a poster he had displayed on his office door. The poster featured a quote from the short-lived television show Firefly, Joss Whedon’s libertarian cult classic that is part throwback Western, part space fiction, and features characters (ironically) who battle an authoritarian government.

The poster on Miller’s door featured the following quote, from a characted named “Mal” Reynolds, explaining why he could be trusted not to kill another character in his sleep:

“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.”

Reaction from the UW–Stout administration was typically hysterical (in both common senses of the word), saying they could not allow the poster, as it represented a threat of violence. UW–Stout police chief Lisa Walter e-mailed Miller, saying the poster “depicts violence and mentions violence and death” and that the campus’s threat-assessment team agreed the poster could be “constituted as a threat.”

“We have a responsibility as a university to provide an atmosphere for our students, faculty and staff that is safe,” university spokesman Doug Mell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, arguing that such incidents need to be examined in the light of mass shootings that have happened at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois universities in recent years. “Something like that had better change your perception.”

So apparently the university’s appropriateness standard rests on whether something “mentions violence and death.” Let this be a warning to faculty — you had better not post a copy of the Gettysburg Address on your door, as Lincoln pleaded that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” Don’t attempt to prove your patriotism by endorsing Patrick Henry’s plea to “give me liberty or give me death.”

Of course, if you stroll through any faculty lounge at the UW–Madison campus, you’re bound to find implicit threats against Gov. Scott Walker posted everywhere. You know, because he runs a totalitarian regime and all. One that might, uh, suppress free speech.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.



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