How Firefly fans and Neil Gaiman used social media to save free speech
December 27, 2011
by Erik Kain
Firefly fans and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education helped protect free speech, and a university professor's job, with a little help from author Neil Gaiman and Twitter.
Social media is changing the world and certainly University of Wisconsin professor James Miller understands this better than most. When Miller hung a poster of the popular but short-lived science fiction show Firefly outside his office he never expected that university police would take the poster down.
The offending material had a picture of the star of the show, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, and one of the captain's most famous quotations: "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."
University Police Chief Lisa A. Walter told Miller that she had removed the poster because "it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing." Apparently the poster could "be interpreted as a threat by others and/or could cause those that view it to believe that you are willing/able to carry out actions similar to what is listed."
Miller told Walter that this was fascism and backed his words up with a second poster:
It reads: "Warning Fascism - Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets."
Not surprisingly, this poster was also taken down by school police. The University's "threat assessment team" found that this second poster could also be perceived as a threat of violence and police warned Miller that he could face criminal charges.
Miller, worried about his job, contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (or FIRE) and the people there turned out to also be Firefly fans.
To make a long story short, the confluence of Firefly fans (who are still smarting from the show's premature cancellation) and the advocacy of the good folks at FIRE led to some media attention. But it wasn't until science fiction and fantasy author Neil Gaiman picked up the story and tweeted it to his 1.6 million Twitter followers that any real attention was paid to the story.
After that, the University began receiving complaints and bad press. What once would have been most likely confined to local media and may have resulted in a professor losing his job over a couple of humorous posters ended up an international story.
University officials backed down from their censorship of Miller and nobody lost their job. All in all, it was a victory for free speech and social media. One might even call it revenge of the nerds.
The only remaining tragedy, so far as I can tell, is that nobody has commissioned a second season of Firefly.