I have one viable claim to hipsterdom: I was into “Firefly” before it was cool.
I watched the show obsessively in the fall of 2002. I evangelized for it. I yelled at people who dared to doubt its awesomeness. I wrote letters to Fox urging them to give the show a fair shake. I mourned–O, how I mourned!–when the show came to its ignominious end (oddly enough, by showing the very first episode last).
Several years later, when the DVD allowed the multitudes of people who either didn’t know about the show in 2002 or had better things to do on a Friday night in 2002 and couldn’t work a VCR to discover the show anew, I was there to say “I told you so.” When a surge of popular support and demand led to the 2005 release of Serenity, the feature film follow-up to the TV series, I was out front to see it, to marvel at the power of fans, and (SPOILERS AHEAD) to mourn Book and Wash.
“Firefly” lives on in many ways, even if Joss Whedon’s subsequent projects haven’t been quite as compelling (although I am a big Dr. Horrible fan). The career of Summer Glau as the go-to strange, smart, unsettlingly hot guest actress on various shows (most recently “Alphas”) is but one of the testaments of “Firefly.” It has also left a lasting impact on my vocabulary (“shiny”) and left us many, many excellent quotes.
And that’s where I am no longer content to say that haters gotta hate.
That’s where the tribulations of University of Wisconsin-Stout theater professor James Miller enter the picture. Professor Miller’s tale threatens so many of the things I hold dear in life: satire, snark, free expression, generous use of move and TV quotes, pushing both buttons and envelopes, and so forth. To understand Professor James Miller, though, you must first understand Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds, or “Mal” to those who know him (he doesn’t really have friends per se) is a fictional character portrayed by actor Nathan Fillion, but not a soul has seen an episode of “Firefly” and not wanted to hang out with Mal. He fought on the losing side of a mid-26th-century civil war waged across an entire solar system. Afterwards, he bought a spaceship (a Firefly-class cruiser) and travels the ‘Verse. If you have a job, he and his crew will take it. They don’t much care what it is.
Mal left us with quite a few classics of television philosophy before they took the sky from him. Chief among those is this exchange with a new passenger on his ship:
- Simon: I’m trying to put this as delicately as I can…how do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?
- Mal: 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.
See, it’s an expression of honor. Mal wants Simon to know that, even though Mal doesn’t like Simon, Simon is part of his crew. As such, Mal will protect him, fight for him, and never, ever betray him. (Part of the story is that Simon has a hefty price on his head as a fugitive from the government, and has to stay hidden and on the run. Simon is extremely nonviolent. Mal offers him safe haven.)
Not everyone sees the quote that way, of course. Specifically, Lisa Walter, UW-Stout’s chief of police/director of parking services, found a poster on Professor Miller’s office door displaying that Malcolm Reynolds quote to be unacceptably threatening for an academic environment. So she took it down, and then notified Professor Miller. She told him that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” She further warned him that future postings in a similar vein could lead to a charge of disorderly conduct.
I was not able to locate any examples of UW-Stout faculty or staff getting into criminal trouble for being a Roberta Flack fan, but it is possible that it could happen using Chief Walters’ standard.
Professor Miller, not being one to go quietly, put up a new poster stating his thoughts on the dangers of fascism and its possible effects on the skull and brain. Of course, UW-Stout administration, having spent the past several years developing an immunity to irony, found this poster comparably objectionable, somehow concluding that Professor Miller was encouraging fascist violence.
The matter went up the chain of command, all the way to the university chancellor. Surely the highest echelons of university power could see this for the overblown clusterf*** that it was, and cooler heads could prevail, right?
If you think that’s where this story is going, you must be new to my blog. I deal in stupid stuff.
Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen had this to say:
[W]e…have the responsibility to promote a campus environment that is free from threats of any kind—both direct and implied. It was our belief, after consultation with UW System legal counsel, that the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. That is why they were removed.
This was not an act of censorship. This was an act of sensitivity to and care for our shared community, and was intended to maintain a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure.
So a quote identifying all the reasons why a fictional character won’t kill you, along with an obviously-stylized bit of satirical protest, constitutes “an implied threat of violence”? Is the administration honestly worried that Professor Miller might come to school with a gun and only shoot people who are similarly armed, awake, and facing him? Or that he might don a helmet and beat stick figures with a baton? Have universities become so teacuppish that students cannot handle this level of non-threats?
I weep for the future. I weep for the students of UW-Stout who have to get an education and plan for a future in such a colossally cowardly institution. I weep for the cancellation of “Firefly” (and no, Fox, I am never letting that go, dammit.)
I end with the remainder of that exchange between Mal and Simon:
- Simon: Are you always this sentimental?
- Mal: I had a good day.
- Simon: You had the Alliance on you, criminals and savages… half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded including yourself, and you’re harboring known fugitives.
- Mal: We’re still flying.
- Simon: That’s not much.
- Mal: It’s enough.
Extra reading on this topic:
College professor threatened with criminal charges for Firefly quote, io9, September 26, 2011
I Swear By My Pretty Floral Bonnet, I Will Censor You, Popehat, September 26, 2011
Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen Vigilant Against Threat of Satire, Figurative Speech, Hurt Feelings, Popehat, September 28, 2011
Banned posters rile ‘Firefly’ TV show fans against UW-Stout, Pioneer Press, September 29, 2011