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.