Firefly, Free Speech, and the Danger of Questioning Authority on Campus

When the editors announced I would be guest blogging for Ricochet this week, the very first comment mentioned a crazy 2011 case that my organization, FIRE, fought involving a quote from my beloved, yet short-lived, science-fiction western series Firefly. As you can see in the video below, the case involved a drama professor at a University of Wisconsin campus, two posters, legendary science-fiction and fantasy author Neil Gaiman, and some campus administrators on a serious power trip.

(As an aside, the posters earned a place of honor in my playfully titled “Censored: Top 10 Pics Too Hot For Campus,” which I published last month on The Huffington Post and I encourage everyone to check out if you want to see just how tame some of the images that get censored on campus are.)

But the Firefly case is only unique in FIRE history because it involved a number of celebrities and a TV show with a rabid fan base (we Firefly fans call ourselves Browncoats). We see abuses like this on campus after campus all the time, and they often involve a mid-level administrator who could care less about free speech or the First Amendment. Indeed, the trend is so pronounced that at the last minute I added an entirely new chapter to my book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate entitled “Don’t Question Authority.”

Just a handful of weeks ago, in fact, the State University of New York at Oswego suspended and kicked off campus a journalism student who merely told his interview subjects by email that their comments about a person he was writing a profile on did not have to be positive. In response, the student received a letter from the president of the university notifying him that he had been placed on interim suspension and charged with “disruptive behavior” for violating a university speech code that prohibited emails that “defame, harass, intimidate, or threaten another individual or group.”

Incidents like the one in the Firefly case, at Oswego, and at many other schools where we have fought similar rights infringements are, of course, predictable. When you empower officials with vague and broad codes that allow them to police speech, it doesn’t take very long before they start targeting those who are merely critical of them or their colleagues.

  1. Barkha Herman

    Could we institute a training program on liberty for all public officials?

    I have to go through “code of conduct” training in the private sector for racial sensitivity, sexual harassment etc.   While I don’t necessarily oppose these, they are not protected by the constitution.

    Free speech on the other hand is.

    If it’s mid-level bureaucrats that seem to be perpetuating most of these offenses, then is education the answer?

    I would sure like more people to know more about our constitution – and free speech is a good place to start.

    It doesn’t even have to be expensive; we could work on developing a web based course and offer it to College campuses to take.

    What say?

  2. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    I agree that more education of administrators is in order. Every year, FIRE representatives run a presentation at the big umbrella conference of student judiciary officers to do just that, and we work closely with interested administrators to correct policies throughout the year. We also have authored a guide specially targeted at administrators seeking to revise problematic policies (http://thefire.org/article/11188.html), as well as offering other resources (http://thefire.org/takeaction/administrators). 

    I think, sadly, the only way colleges will impose mandatory trainings for administrators on First Amendment and free speech issues would be if colleges started to get sued so often for violating student free speech rights that they came to see trainings as necessary to guard against legal liability. And tying First Amendment training to federal aid the same way Title IX anti-harassment standards are is an idea that has been coming up more often lately.We do webinars (indeed we are doing one on due process today at 3; http://thefire.org/torch/#15260) but designing and conducting a session that functions more like a web course/certification for admins is a very good idea. Thanks!

  3. NoxEternae

    Maybe it would be possible to create a toolkit for the student, teacher or professor.  That would help them in dealing with these oppressive administrators. 

    Items in the toolkit could be templates for written responses to adminstrative action.  Some of the guides you already have on your site.  Guides for getting friends and colleagues to write the school and also provide templates for those recruits to properly address the issue.  Maybe a printable PDF pamphlet with specific cases (like the firefly case), court precedence, etc… that can be attached to the written letter to provide some weight to it.

    I think it would be more beneficial to society to teach these kids and individuals how to stand up to authority (i.e. Authoritarians), and to stand for what they believe in.  Rather than educating these gollum-like mid level bureacrats, that their “precious” little office doesn’t grant the level  of power they think it does…

  4. Ramblin

    He obviously aimed to misbehave.  Shiny!

  5. Rachel Lu
    C

    As a university instructor I might add: while there are certainly exceptions, I think most faculty are prepared to be pretty tolerant of “deviant”undergraduate views. It’s not that professoes are so committed to free speech. Towards colleagues and grad students they can be ruthless. But they don’t take undergrads that seriously, and frankly, in your standard college class you’re just grateful for anyone who will talk and generate some discussion. Administrators might be a different story, though. They’re just as ideologically committed as the faculty, but don’t have as many outlets for showing it, and whereas faculty tend to band together against administrators (even if not against one another), students are easy prey.

  6. Ross C

    I think these universities are an example of what happens to a bureaucracy that gets all the money it wants for a generation.  After about 30 or 40 years they have nearly completely lost touch with the cornerstones of their purpose and are flummoxed by their inability to administer a paradise on earth.  No parts of campus life no matter how inconsequential are beyond the bureaucrat’s scrutiny and purview.  It took a long time to get we we are.  Just smell that air. 

    BTW It was the episode where the gangster Niska’s evil minion is threatening the firefly crew even after being subdued that hooked me on the show.  Mal later throws him into one of the ship’s turbines and finds the next guy much more willing to deliver the message to his boss.  When I saw that I knew this show broke all the rules and should not be missed.  Unfortunately that was after it was already cancelled.

  7. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Very well said: 

    Ross Conatser: I think these universities are an example of what happens to a bureaucracy that gets all the money it wants for a generation.  After about 30 or 40 years they have nearly completely lost touch with the cornerstones of their purpose and are flummoxed by their inability to administer a paradise on earth.  No parts of campus life no matter how inconsequential are beyond the bureaucrat’s scrutiny and purview.  

  8. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Oh yes, I talk about the “Silent Classroom” problem a lot in the book and I do stress that admins creating an environment where you can get on trouble for such trivial things can’t possibly be helping. You’ll be pleased to know I have a whole chapter devoted to our defense of the rights of professors. 

    Rachel L.: As a university instructor I might add: while there are certainly exceptions, I think most faculty are prepared to be pretty tolerant of “deviant”undergraduate views. It’s not that professoes are so committed to free speech. Towards colleagues and grad students they can be ruthless. But they don’t take undergrads that seriously, and frankly, in your standard college class you’re just grateful for anyone who will talk and generate some discussion. Administrators might be a different story, though. They’re just as ideologically committed as the faculty, but don’t have as many outlets for showing it, and whereas faculty tend to band together against administrators (even if not against one another), students are easy prey. · 1 hour ago

  9. Jan-Michael Rives

    While I was at school, the university’s hockey team had their entire season cancelled because of a flyer that said “Stop being a pussy.” Ironically, it was precisely those to whom the flyer was addressed that took offense and saw to the punishment.

  10. Jan-Michael Rives
    Rachel L.: As a university instructor I might add: while there are certainly exceptions, I think most faculty are prepared to be pretty tolerant of “deviant”undergraduate views.

    Pfffttttt

  11. David John
    Greg Lukianoff, Guest Contributor: As an aside, the posters earned a place of honor in my playfully titled “Censored: Top 10 Pics Too Hot For Campus,” which I published last month on The Huffington Post  · · 7 hours ago

    I appreciated your post and enjoyed your video. But you need to pay attention to your production quality – some of your top 10 pics were unreadable. Maybe this was caused by Huffington Post, but please take care. Good luck to you.

  12. George Savage
    C

    The really chilling aspect for me?  Absent FIRE’s involvement, the university thought police win.

    Greg, thank you for the important work you do at FIRE.  

    Now can you convince a network to bring Firefly back? 

  13. Ramblin

    Bring back Book. Bring back Wash. Bring it all back.

  14. Cal Lawton

    You can’t stop the signal.

  15. Rachel Lu
    C

    I have a suggestion for reining in these abuses: cut way back on university administrative staff. Administration is way too big and substantially overpaid, and when you get too many administrators on your hands they find all kinds of ways to make their institutions worse. Keep the staff small enough that everyone has real work to do, and this might not happen so much.

  16. Joseph Eagar

    This is awesome. 

  17. Greg Lukianoff
    C

    Terrific point, Rachel and dead on. Administrative bloat, as I talk about extensively in the book, is a HUGE part of the problem. I simply could not stress that enough in the book. 

  18. Ross C

    Cowed by the mob – the police likely did not rethink their position. I suspect the campus police probably continue to think they were in the right.  But it was not a threat of violence that cowed the university into abandoning their police chief, but rather a spineless reaction to any sort of visible upset.  The cowboy does not empathize with the coyote spooking the herd, he merely does what is necessary to keep the cows quiet.

Want to comment on stories like these? Become a member today!

You'll have access to:

  • All Ricochet articles, posts and podcasts.
  • The conversation amongst our members.
  • The opportunity share your Ricochet experiences.

Join Today!

Already a Member? Sign In