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Mill on Snyder Protests: Destructive or Harmless?

April 5, 2011

I have been waiting for the right time to discuss the controversy with Governor Snyder’s recent policy changes, and after learning about Mill and his philosophy on free speech and opinions I thought this would be the perfect time. As a student at the University of Michigan, I have almost felt a sort of obligation to discuss this controversy being that the education cuts directly relate to those of us enrolled in the U of M.

I have been keeping up with the recent news on his policies as well as the large amount of protests and petitions, both on campus and off, that are occurring. On March 15, thousands of students and local activists gathered at the Michigan state capitol in Lansing to protest Governor Snyder. A main argument that was conveyed at this particular gathering was the fact that Snyder’s plan takes away our constitutional right to repeal the bill because of the power that will be given to Snyder to eliminate any municipal government in an area he decides is in “financial stress” without the input from voters. This policy that Snyder is proposing would definitely not fly with Mill.

According to Mill, there is something to be learned from all opinions, and that opinions directly impact the betterment of our society by increasing diversity and individuality. He believes that by silencing one opinion, you are keeping possible truths from being heard. But Mill also clearly explains that there should be limits on the opinions of citizens that prevent the opportunity of causing harm on others. So my first question is, would Mill support these protests on Snyder’s policies, or would he feel that they are harming others?

At first I felt there was no debate here, that Mill would certainly say the mere expression of distaste in Snyder’s policies is not harmful, but rather a form of free speech and expression of opinion. This was until I came across the following article in the Business Insider, which discusses how Michigan’s teachers’ union is asking its members to vote in favor of authorizing “crisis” measures if Snyder’s budget passes, which includes an illegal strike.

After learning this, would Mill believe this is taking it too far by proposing harm on others? Would this mean that the state would then have a right to take action against the union? Where do you draw the line when it comes to expressing one’s opinions? As Mill says,”The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant” (On Liberty, pg. 597 ) Perhaps state is not necessarily the best way to deal with people who violate this harm principle because of the potential debate from either side, but it is clear that Mill would feel this matter of free speech impacts the betterment of society as long as it is not posing harm onto others.

  1. Kathaleen Kokotilo permalink
    April 5, 2011 3:46 PM

    I would definately agree by saying that Mill would support the protests on Synder’s policies. Mill says that freedom of speech is beneficial because the less supported opinion, or the unpopular one, could be right and even if it is not, debating it will only allow people to better understand their own opinion as well as the one they are arguing for. As for the second part, I don’t believe Mill would say it is wrong for the teacher’s union to ask for its members to vote that way, because that is simply freedom of speech on their part. Whether or not actually going through with something like an illegal strike is a little more tricky. Mill believes in the principle of utility, meaning that an action is good if it makes someone happy, and vise versa. So that makes me think that Mill would support whatever action makes the most people happy, and in this situation that scenario could be looked at in many different ways. I believe that Mill was a big supporter of labor unions so he would probably support the strike and view it is as a means to achieving a more happy ending.

    • Kathaleen Kokotilo permalink
      April 5, 2011 3:54 PM

      In addition, when I said, “Mill would support whatever action makes the most people happy” I meant he would support the decision that creates the highest total utility across society.

      • Nick Majie permalink
        April 5, 2011 5:12 PM

        I would also agree that Mill would support the protests. The people have the right to their freedom of expression, and there are no directly harmful effects due to their freedom of expression. Any doctrine should be allowed to be expressed no matter how immoral or disrespectful it may be–there is no line to be drawn in this respect. I feel as though Mill would even favor this protest because it would create a “marketplace of ideas” that would enhance the truths in society, and the opinions of all people would be taken into consideration.

        As for the potential illegal strike by the teacher’s union, I find this to be less easily supported by Mill. I do, however, believe that Mill would support this form of expression because it would, once again, contribute to the “marketplace of ideas” in society. The only issue is the legality of the matter, does Mill support illegal activities as long as they do not lead to long-lasting and harmful effects? Is this where the line is drawn? Regardless, I feel as though Mill would endorse the union’s desire to express their liberties. By doing so, they are voicing their opinion and attempting to enact social and personal progress, which is highly supported by Mill.

  2. Jeremy Kucera permalink
    April 5, 2011 8:18 PM

    I am a bit confused when you say that Snyder’s policy “takes away our constitutional right to repeal the bill because of the power that will be given to Snyder to eliminate any municipal government in an area he decides is in “financial stress” without the input from voters” Are you saying that we have a constitutional right to vote on any bill that the government passes, because I don’t think that is correct. Or are you saying the people have the right to vote and repeal a policy made by the government, because I don’t believe that is correct either. If that were the case, are you saying that the people of the United States have a right to repeal Obama’s healthcare bill if we don’t agree with it? I don’t think it is right to leave every bill up to vote by the people. Nothing would ever get done because people would constantly be opposing some bill or another.

    Secondly, I don’t know where you stand on the protesting, but I think the teachers and other public workers are being irrational and selfish. This is because the government is like a business. When it isn’t making money, they have to make cuts. Like a private business, when the government doesn’t make money (which it isn’t right now) then they need to cut spending. Snyder is just cutting education and other public works because he has to. Just because they work for the government, doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to pay cuts, benefit cuts or losing their jobs. Could you imagine a bunch of lawyers who were laid off because their firm couldn’t afford them anymore protesting outside their building? No, because they are subject to their company not making money, just like public workers are.

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