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Would Mill defend Shirvell?

November 25, 2010

Andrew Shirvell, the now-infamous assistant attorney general to Mike Cox and sworn nemesis of MSA President Chris Armstrong, finally got the boot. According to the Daily, Cox officially fired him for “conduct unbecoming a state employee” a few weeks ago.

For many of us on campus this was long overdue. Shirvell has frequently appeared in local, state and even national headlines for the past couple of months, proclaiming his right to speak out against Armstrong and his “radical homosexual agenda” (whatever that means). His attorney even went so far as to suggest that Shirvell, not Armstrong, is the victim in all this because of attacks on Shirvell by the “liberal media”.

Given Mill’s near-absolutist stance on free speech, I have to wonder what his take on the situation would be. Had Shirvell been fired for simply attacking Armstrong on his “Chris Armstrong Watch” blog, I don’t think Mill would’ve been okay with this. Mill made it clear in On Liberty that any opinion, no matter how repulsive to society, had a value in the “marketplace of ideas”.

But what about Shirvell’s other actions? What about showing up at Armstrong’s house at one in the morning and shouting? What about harassing some of Armstrong’s friends while they were in Ann Arbor? What about carrying out his crusade while on the clock at work?

No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.    – Mill

Mill clearly had a different standard for public officials. True, Shirvell did not technically “harm” Armstrong, but his personal quest to oust him from the MSA presidency was, in Cox’s eyes, interfering with his ability to carry out his assistant attorney general duties. And I feel Mill would concur that some punishment was necessary.

What do you think? Would Mill defend Shirvell’s speech, but not his actions? Would he defend both? Or would he defend neither?

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8 Comments
  1. arjunindianhongkongkid permalink
    November 26, 2010 2:20 AM

    Is Shirvell harming Armstrong? Mentally Yes. Is Shirvell right? Do not know. As students of University of Michigan, we’re probably biased. I’ll give it a marginal No.
    If this was Kant, he would bash Shirvell for misappropriate use of private reason.
    But what Mill would say, I’m completely unsure. Would Mill go ahead and bash Armstrong for not being able handle it? Armstrong is a student assembly President and he is bound to be criticized for his actions. It’s just like there will always be people criticizing you. Here, there is no physical pain and its not like Shirvell is putting Armstrong into Depression.
    Or would Mill say, this is nuisance not just to Armstrong but also to a lot of students as a whole?
    Tell me what you guys think.

  2. jungle12 permalink
    November 26, 2010 5:05 PM

    Clearly Andrew Shirvell was a huge nuisance not only to Chris Armstrong but also to a huge part of the students at the University of Michigan. I believe that Mill will defend Shirvell however only to a certain extent. Yes it is true that Shirvell did not physically harm Armstrong but Shirvell did harass and stalk Armstrong, but there are laws in place to protect people that are victims of harassment. And according to the clip “psychologist says that cyber bullying can be more emotionally devastating than physical bullying”, and if Shirvell was not stop I feel that something terrible could have happened.

  3. changmc permalink
    November 26, 2010 8:20 PM

    I agree with the above comments in that Mill would have to see that although Shirvell did carry private opinions, his actions were a nuisance to not only Armstrong, but the Michigan community that stood by him and elected him as their president. Mill maintained that free speech is necessary for people to make the right decisions, so that people weren’t believing in “dead dogma.” I think the people realized that as a government official, his own personal agendas were interfering with the responsibilities he had to the state. In my opinion, Shirvell did his job by attacking Armstrong through different forms and the right decision was made by firing him.

  4. Vidya permalink
    November 27, 2010 3:47 PM

    Of course, we can’t say for sure what Mill would think about this issue. However, if I had to make a guess, I would agree with the previous two posts and say that Mill would support Cox’s decision to fire Shirvell. In Chapter 3 of the reading, Mill states that “the liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.”
    Clearly, stalking Armstrong and harassing his friends would be classified as molestation. Shirvell definitely has the right to voice his opinions concerning Armstrong for two reasons: (1) he is a member of political society, and therefore may take action to fix anything he feels is wrong with it and (2) he is a public leader, with an obligation to represent other members of his community. So the issue here isn’t simply whether Shirvell has the right to voice such a strong opinion, the issue is how far he should be allowed to take it. Personally, I agree with Mill in that we should draw the line at molestation/harm.
    Sometimes this line can be hard to define. I wanted to point out an interesting example I recently came across in the book “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law” by Gabriel Schoenfeld. A few years ago, New York Times uncovered a great story about the government eavesdropping on overseas communications of suspected terrorists. The White House confronted NY Times publishers in person, asking them not to publish the article in fear of jeopardizing the anti-terror investigations. Two weeks later, the article was published. The editor defended himself saying, “We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the Administration’s objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”
    In this situation, could one argue that NY Times is being a “nuisance” or molesting someone else’s rights to the freedom of expression? I think that in this case, Mill would argue that although the New York Times is not directly harming anyone, it is indirectly harming the government’s efforts to provide protection and security for its people. In such cases, I think the government should have restrictions on certain issues in the media, and I think Mill would agree.

  5. brittajones permalink
    November 27, 2010 10:13 PM

    I think that Mill would defend Shirvell’s speech against Chris Armstrong but not his actions. As you stated before, “…but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty.” This was a big part of Shirvell’s defense in that he did not protest against Chris Armstrong while on the job. I remember watching an interview between Shirvell and Anderson Cooper when he repeatedly said that his work had nothing to do with what he did in his private life (which was ironic because Mike Cox has a big campaign against cyber bullying). Unfortunately, Mill does not make the distinction between public and private speech as Kant does but he did write, “If he displeases us, we may express our distaste, and we may stand aloof from a person as well as from a thing that displeases us; but we shall not therefore feel called on to make his life uncomfortable”(p. 632).
    Mill also wrote,”…the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest”(p.630)
    I think Mill would be perfectly ok with Shirvell expressing his “distaste” of Chris Armstrong because of his sexuality in his private conversations and maybe his blog would be ok to Mill. But as far as stalking Chris’s home and his friends, Mill would say that’s making Chris uncomfortable and therefore those actions would be considered unjust, “The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law”. In this case, Mike Cox’s opinion was the punishing opinion when Shirvell got fired.

  6. Will Butler permalink
    November 28, 2010 11:20 PM

    This post is a perfect example of the frustrations I have with Mill. First, the harm principle itself is so incredibly vague and ambiguous. Does mental or emotional harm worthy of putting limits on free speech. Free speech is also a difficult principle because of cases like this. I detest and loath Shirvell, yet isn’t he still afforded these same rights? (especially in a Millian society). I think in the end, Mill would certainly approve of the blog, however would most likely frown upon his stalking and harassing because it was having an impact on Armstrong. We are also forgetting about the restraining order from the University. I think this is another thing, unfortunately, Mill would also disapprove of.

  7. ajgrazio permalink
    November 29, 2010 12:05 AM

    It seems to me that Mill would definitely disapprove of Shirvell’s actions. While as mentioned above, the harm principle is quite vague, no matter how you look at it it’s hard to say that Shirvell’s actions did not in some way “harm” Armstrong. In addition, despite Shirvell’s assurances that what he did was private and had nothing to do with his job, it is my understanding that it was later found out that investigators discovered that he had made calls related to the stalking during his time at work, which Mill would regard as a negative thing given Shirvell’s duties as a public servent. So I guess my answer to the basic question of whether Mill would approve of the firing would be that yes he would have been, for a number of reasons.

  8. Jorge Rodriguez-Larrain permalink
    November 30, 2010 2:57 PM

    This was an interesting post that shows a controversial topic. Bullying is a form of abuse, accordingly, in my opinion, Shrivell has “harmed” Armstrong. It is hard to draw the line on when an opinion becomes harmful, as harm can many times be considered the sole physical harm. This is not the case in this situation, as Shrivell has “harmed” Armstrong mentally. However, since Shrivell’s opinion was allowed to be expressed, now many of us were able to develop our own opinion on the subject and see the “errors” in Shrivell’s actions.

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