Free Speech and College

Incompatible concepts? I think not. High school and free speech, maybe. But you don’t think of colleges as a place where you’re not allowed to talk about legalizing marijuana or express your political opinions or put up awesome posters of television shows/movies.

Nevertheless, a police chief in the University of Wisconsin system decided that this Firefly poster constituted a threat (or something):

Ahhhh! Nathan Fillon is coming to get you! Run and hide!

First of all, Firefly is an awesome show and you should go watch it. This quote is clear proof of the sheer awesomeness of the main character. Secondly – what? A threat to whom?

The theater professor who posted this on his office door, James Miller, took his case to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). After having the Firefly poster removed and getting another e-mail from the police chief threatening disorderly conduct charges if he re-posted the poster that “can cause others to fear for their safety,” Miller decided to respond with a new poster:

The University of Wisconsin-Stout administrators were not amused and the poster was removed. The furor caused by FIRE’s campaign to get Chancellor Charles Sorenson to reverse the decision resulted in a denial:

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.

Ha. Yeah, right. Taking down posters is totally not censorship. On the upside, if the professor was a student or teacher in high school he probably would’ve been expelled or fired. (Think of “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” incident and the Supreme Court case crushing students’ free speech rights.) Instead he just got threatened with a lawsuit.

FIRE has a nice rating system of the First Amendment friendliness of colleges, searchable by state or school name. Mizzou gets a red light because of one of the policies against sexual harassment:

Here are some examples of behaviors that may be sexually harassing:

* Leering or ogling
* Remarks of a sexual nature, such as comments about a person’s clothing, appearance, or sexual experience
* Suggestive or insulting sounds
* Off-color jokes or obscene gestures


When the harassment rises to the level that it interferes with employment or with education, then it becomes illegal and also violates the University’s policy. But even lesser levels of sexually harassing behaviors may be inconsistent with MU’s commitment to a safe and inclusive work and learning environment.

Well, you can see how this might become a problem. “Leering or ogling”? “Off-color jokes”? I mean, sure, I hate creepy guys just as much as the next girl, but I can also see how this could violate the creepy guys’ free speech rights. Of course, a strict policy against sexual harassment empowers people who feel victimized to speak out. And it’s amazing how human beings can communicate without using sexual language so much that everybody else in the room uncomfortable.

I can easily think of a few people I’ve encountered in college who make sexist, offensive comments just as a joke way more than I’m comfortable with. The great thing about a big school? I can avoid people I don’t like so easily.

It’s a different story if you’re forced to encounter people who make you uncomfortable with their words and/or actions – if you work with them or they stalk you creepily (it happens). Which is where this kind of policy would come in handy. It’s not like the MU Equity Office is trying to stop everyone from making jokes about women belonging in the kitchen or calling people names – they offer informal mediation between parties to (hopefully) stop the situation from escalating.


Firefly good, censorship for arbitrary reasons bad.


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