Free Speech is Tricky

Yesterday, I was criticizing India for not doing enough to secure freedom of speech in their own country, despite the fact that the country is ostensibly democratic.  And today, I’m going to congratulate Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox for firing Andrew Shirvell, one of his assistants who launched a one man smear campaign against openly gay University of Michigan undergraduate Chris Armstrong.  This is one of those posts that my opinion is stopped dead in its tracks as I begin thinking about how to write it.

My criticism of the Indian government was such that they failed to protect the right of freedom of expression of a number of people within their borders who took unpopular stands, be they political activists, artists, authors or academics.  In some cases, the backlash for some of these said stands included death threats and threats of deportation.

So what’s the difference between these people and Andrew Shirvell?  Both were taking unpopular stands.  Shouldn’t they be afforded the same protection?  Both groups were expressing minority opinions that didn’t sit well the with majority population.  So, at first, I thought I had come up with a hole in my logic, and that I’d have to change gears and contend that Shirvell had been wrongly fired.  But, then I thought about it more.

Shirvell had started a blog whose sole intent was to denigrate Chris Armstrong, and the blog propagated and repeated such ludicrous ad hominem attacks so as to be completely implausible on the face of it.  Shirvell went so far as to call House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, where Armstrong was interning, in a failed bid to have him fired.  This sad, sad man, I think, is a self-loathing closet case himself, but that’s beside the point.  The reason that Shirvell had garnered such attention was due almost solely to the fact that he was an employee of the Attorney General.  I think Shirvell’s firing is justified in the context that his attacks were on a member of society that was not really well situated to protect himself.  Basically, it wasn’t a fair fight.  Michigan courts had turned down request for a restraining order, and the University of Michigan’s ban on Shirvell entering the campus was rescinded earlier this year.

So, I think you can make the argument that free speech has its limitations in the context of protecting those that aren’t always able to protect themselves.  We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but not at the expense of another person’s safety.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously stated: ‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.‘  Meaning, there are limitations to free speech, and the public considerations of safety and decency ought to be a part of that consideration.  A government employee launching a vendetta against an undergraduate that’s clearly unfounded falls far outside of any such consideration.

Andrew Shirvell, you will not be missed.  Get some therapy.

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2 Comments

  1. Did that finally happen today? I understand that letting him go can lead to a slippery slope, but there comes a time when common sense has to take over. Stalking and bullying a kid, when you are a government official should be an easy call. I was watching his interview on Anderson 360 and he kept commenting something to the effect that this is ok because it is Chris Anderson is a public official and this happens during the course of a campaign. First, Chris Anderson is the Student Body President for the University of Michigan, hardly what I would consider a public official. You don’t go to UofM, so don’t worry about it. Secondly, he wasn’t running a campaign, he was already elected.

    Reply

  2. Yeah, I agree. Coming up with a hard and fast rule with regards to situations like this is difficult. It’s like Potter Steward, former Supreme Court Justice famously quoted about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

    This is similar. I can’t define what’s proper, but when it happens, I can tell you.

    Reply

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