What Would Mill Do? – A Case of Free Speech in Public Schools

October 10, 2011

Political Theory

While browsing through some articles on Fox News earlier today (yes, I do go to Fox News occasionally for my news. Don’t hate.) and stumbled upon an article that instantly made me think of Mill and the discussion we had in lecture on 9/20 regarding possible reasons to restrict free speech.

This 14-year-old boy was issued a one day in-school suspension and two days of out-of-school suspension for speaking out against homosexuals. His remarks against homosexuality were directly tied into his religious beliefs and background. From what can drawn from the article, the young boy clearly stated that “homosexuality is wrong”, although it appears he did not direct these comments towards a homosexual or said anything derogatory. Regardless, should school officials and teachers allow such comments to be made in their classroom? And also, did the young boy receive the correct punishment for his comment?

The best way to approach this situation, I believe, is to look at the situation from both sides of the argument.

From the side of the teacher and the school, the young man received the correct punishment for his actions and students should not have the ability to speak out against homosexuals or any other group of individuals, regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds. It would also appear that my fellow classmates in PoliSci101 would agree with this as well. On 9/20, when Professor LaVaque-Many polled the class on what reason (out of five choices) would be strongest for restricting speech, the class overwhelming selected hate speech (66% of the vote). The young man spoke out against homosexuality and this has the possibility of silencing, intimidating, and mentally harming any homosexuals that may have overhead his comments. Regardless of his religious background, the young man is using hate speech and should be silenced.

From the side of the student and his parents, no punishment should have been issued to the student as he was only expressing his beliefs. The comments were not derogatory and were not specifically targeted towards an individual. What right do school officials and teachers have restricting what opinions and beliefs students can express? The student’s religious background is directly rooted as the reason for his beliefs, and the school should not have the right to silence what his religion has taught him. Is there truly a difference between one student stating that homosexuality is wrong and another student stating that homosexuality is right? Both students are simply stating their opinions on a sensitive issue. From the viewpoint of the student and parents, no wrongdoing has occurred at the school has infringed upon the student’s freedom of speech.

Now that an argument has been presented from both sides, let me ask: Regarding this specific article and situation, What Would Mill Do?


About TylerJHughes

Financial analyst at the University of Michigan's Medical School

View all posts by TylerJHughes


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

17 Comments on “What Would Mill Do? – A Case of Free Speech in Public Schools”

  1. beaurh Says:

    Although the student does have the right to speak and express his beliefs concerning homosexuality, I believe that there is always a time and a place and a more suitable forum for self-expression. Expressing a very controversial opinion during class is viewed as an interruption to other’s education, thus his punishment is just. He is being punished very similarly to a student who speaks out or interrupts the class just to do it. Although he is being punished for speaking out against homosexuals, he is really being punished for interrupting and preventing other students from learning.
    This discussion correlates directly to the recent Hank Williams Jr. comments regarding Hitler and President Obama. The controversy is very similar. Should Hank Williams Jr. be fired for his comments or does he have the right to express himself on air? I believe that he should definitely be fired because he works for ESPN. Any controversial statement that can slander ESPN’s name gives ESPN the right to fire the speaker. Please comment back on if you believe that private companies and enterprises have the right to fire an employee for expressing their beliefs publicly or is that in violation of their freedom of expression.

  2. brianfrankel Says:

    I agree with beaurh’s comment above. While freedom of speech is certainly a right to every American citizen, it does not come with the freedom to hate, intimidate, or alienate others. The student, by speaking out against homosexuality, violated the other students’ freedom to feel safe in class. In my opinion, freedom of speech and expression take a different form in a school setting because public schools are supposed to be a haven for learning for students. By bringing in personal, negative beliefs, this haven is destroyed.

    On the other hand, according to Mill, all opinions should have right to be heard because silencing opinions robs the human race. I believe Mill’s argument can be used to support the student’s right to say what he said. In fact, the student’s comments most likely will help further all those involved by showing them the pain caused by such comments and the ignorance associated with saying such things in public, further discouraging future, similar acts of indecency.

  3. mfriedlander92 Says:

    Mill says that people should have the freedom of expression so that there is a marketplace of ideas. The more ideas that are expressed increases the intelligence and knowledge of the people. Even if you don’t believe in an idea, the more ideas that you disagree with prove your idea stronger. He also believes that people should be able to have the freedom of speech, as long as it is respectful.

    I think that in this case, the school ruled too harshly on the boy. If the context of the statement was just that because of this boy’s religion he thinks that homosexuality is wrong, then he was purely just stating what he believes. I am not saying that I believe this at all (power to them!) but this boy should not be punished so harshly. Especially if he is not deliberately attacking someone who is homosexual and bullying individuals he is just stating his beliefs. It may not be the most respectful way to phrase his words, but also he is 14-years old; 14-year olds are not the most well-spoken individuals.

    Also this incident occurred in a public school. I went to private schooling my whole life and if something like this happened in private school it would depend on if the school was in accordance to your beliefs. They would then talk to you about what you did wrong and stuff, but punishments would vary (most likely NOT having you suspended). In a public school, the school must be aware that there are many different types of kids with many beliefs and many of those students are not afraid to speak them. I think that in this case the school should have not suspended the boy, but rather talked to him about what is politically correct and why what he did was not appropriate. However, I would like to say again, that he was only stating something he believes and was not attacking anyone, so the school has no right to intervene and suspend him. As the writer of this post stated, our class polled that we did not believe in hate speech, but I would not consider this hate speech. I think that the student should learn to watch their mouth, but also the school should be more understanding that there are many people with different viewpoints at a public school and as long as their words aren’t harming someone (like bullying or attacking), they have the right to express themselves. I think that Mill would support this because the more expression there is, the more knowledge there is and more people can learn from others’ opinions.

  4. elyssashea Says:

    As has been said, Mill would likely support any addition to the “marketplace of ideas.” Even if a comment is rather derogatory, it will eventually lose popularity and therefore be nullified. In fact, one might argue that the student who issued the statement against homosexuality might actually lose favor amongst his classmates, and therefore come to understand the err of his ways. That would be a modern day, quick version of a Mill-ian forum, I’d say! Though, I don’t think Mill intended discussion to be a social popularity contest… However, moreso, if you were going to regard this situation from Mill’s point of view, you cannot really issue that the school was justified in their actions because of the “harm principle.” As Professor LaVaque-Manty lectured on 9/20/11, the “harm principle” stipulates that the only time it is appropriate to use power to censure someone, is if another individual is being directly affected. In this case, there is no clear line of harm that leads to another student being endangered. Therefore, while I am personally alarmed by the comment, you can not use any defense of Mill’s to say that the school was just in punishing this student.

    Additionally, in response to “beaurh”‘s comment, I believe that private companies/ enterprises do have the right to fire employees for expressing their beliefs publicly. Yes, we all have freedom of expression and amendment rights, however, when you are gainfully employed by a private enterprise, you enter into a contract with them. In fact, while I obviously don’t know the legal situation at ESPN, I wouldn’t be surprised if they literally did have a contract with Williams stipulating against such off-handed, public remarks. Especially in the case of an entertainment company, PR is everything and having derogatory comments attached to a company can devastate their image. When a person is on their own or operating in a public sphere, such as a school, I really do not think they owe the institution such similar dues.

  5. danieltarockoff Says:

    First off, let me compliment you on the use of polls in your blog…nice. This is a topic that I have thought a lot about recently, and this specific example is a great form of support for my beliefs on the matter. I, for one, envision a world hundreds of years from now where religion doesn’t exist. Religion has led to some serious moral conflicts over the past hundreds of years, and although it has benefits, I believe atheism is growing at an exponential rate. I’m not typing this to discuss religion, though. I’m writing this comment to discuss why people think they can use religion to exempt themselves from following the laws of the society they live in. I don’t care what you “believe” in, there are still laws you must follow. You can hate homosexuals all you want, but keep it in that crazy little head of yours. In your post, you write that “Both students are simply stating their opinions on a sensitive issue.” Let me just remind everyone; if i recall correctly, I believe equality for African Americans used to be a “sensitive issue.” Today, if I said being black is wrong, I would receive a similar, if not worse punishment than that 14-year-old boy. But why, if it’s just my opinion based on my religious ideals? For the most part, people have accepted African Americans (and other races) as equals in society and realize their previous ignorance that led to their discrimination in the past.

    These people that still are “against” homosexuality, that think it’s wrong, are in for a rude awakening. Homosexuals are finally receiving the reform they’ve deserved. In a hundred years from now, I think there’ll be people looking back and saying, “Wow. How were my ancestors that ignorant? Why did they judge someone for the way they were born?” It’s happened before, as I’ve mentioned, and it’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself. How is this drastic reform going to occur though? Through freedom of speech. Mill would approve. Over the next few decades as supporters and non-supporters of homosexuals continue to openly debate, more and more “truths” will surface until the entire truth is finally revealed.

    I get the point that he wasn’t necessarily attacking anyone, but if ANY homosexual heard his comment they could easily have felt threatened or unwelcome. This kid clearly needs to learn what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable before he’s let off into the real world. I’m not anti-religion (well, maybe a little) but when you let your beliefs take over and form new laws that make you immune to the social contract everyone else is forced to follow, you have gone too far. Hopefully, change is on the horizon and will come sooner than later.

  6. ksaukas Says:

    I see all of the posts on here are supporting one side mostly so I shall attempt to be an underdog here. Personally I would like to know the context of this situation more as to how and why the boy said he thought homosexuality is wrong, but as the Rolling Stones say “You can’t always get what you want.” So let’s look at a few different scenarios and think of how things would have happened.

    Let’s say that the person who spoke out about his belief homosexuality was wrong was in college? Personally I think the subject gets more blurry for a lot of us there because as we all know in most Liberal Arts colleges freedom of expression and advancing discussion is so highly valued that maybe no action would have been taken against the person. That is only if it is said in the right context though because we all know that could get messy fast.

    What if a homosexual 14 year old boy had said that he thought Catholicism was wrong? Maybe most people would think that is no big deal, “Catholics preach at people that they are wrong, who cares if someone does it back?” Well now the shoe just seems to be on the other foot doesn’t it. I don’t believe a school (unless a private Catholic school) would take action against a student saying this because they are from the minority on the issue. “Oh sure pick on the big kid he can handle it, but the smaller guy he needs to be protected at all costs.”

    What is wrong with just stating your beliefs some people ask? If there is no harm meant, then there should be no foul taken shouldn’t there? Hard to say how things would have turned out, but I believe maybe,just maybe, things were taken out of hand because homosexuals are such a persecuted group. Maybe they do deserve the extra protection, but if we want equality in our society maybe we should look at the fact that maybe we aren’t protecting homosexuals so much, but trying to quiet Catholics who see as invalid judgers of our morality.

    (Personally I think it is a little much to be punished for speaking your beliefs…maybe a talking to and having to write a letter of apology for speaking out on such a topic in school would suffice. Either way the punishments would never change his beliefs, its just that one route would make him resent our current system more.)

  7. madisonkraus Says:

    I think that Mill’s ideas could be applied to this issue very easily. Mill’s extreme views on the right to expression would certainly defend this boy and say that he was not at fault in any way by saying that homosexuality is wrong. However, what we have to keep in mind is the culture in which Mill lived in in comparison to our own. In Mill’s time, his ideas were radical and went against the norm. Because of this, his views were extreme and left no room for compromises or exceptions to the idea of unrestricted freedom of expression. In our society, since the right to expression is considered innumerable and given, our culture is different. We believe in the right to expression, and value the fact that we can speak out against government, policies, and opinions we don’t agree with. However, as a modern and democratic society, we also recognize that although they’re protected under our constitution, certain statements may not be appropriate in certain contexts. We are mindful of the fact that condemning others views may be offensive and harmful. We still acknowledge that people have a legal right to voice their own opinions, even if they are unpopular, but at the same time we typically do not approve of people making offensive or hateful public remarks.
    This example of a boy speaking out against homosexuality took place in a public high school. Public education is one of the contexts in which the right to expression is somewhat limited. Children are punished for saying bad words, inappropriate jokes, and offensive statements. Because the boy made a general negative statement about a group of people, it was the teacher’s responsibility to point out that that is not appropriate within a classroom. While I agree that the punishment of multiple days of suspension was a bit drastic, I do not think that punishment in general was unwarranted. Additionally, while I can see why people would be offended by this punishment, I do not feel that it warrants national news coverage. The boy was not punished so severely or unreasonably that it needed to become an issue of national media.

  8. lkpeacock Says:

    As mentioned earlier, Mill supported a “marketplace of ideas”, and thinks it is extremely important for individuals to share their thoughts and ponder counter arguments to further human knowledge. I think the teacher AND the student did not handle the situation correctly.

    “It wasn’t directed to anyone except my friend who was sitting behind me,” Dakota told Fox. “I guess [the teacher] heard me. He started yelling. He told me he was going to write me an infraction and send me to the office.”

    This quotes supports my statement that both teacher and student did not handle the situation the best way or according to Mill’s beliefs. The student did not share his thought with the entire class. He was not open to counter arguments or learning from anyone else’s opinion when he whispered his strong opinion to his nearby friend. I am not saying that he should have shared his opinion publicly, especially when it is extremely offensive (maybe to someone in the classroom), but whispering that to his friend did not further any type of knowledge.

    The teacher, in similar regards, did not allow for an open argument or exploration of knowledge either. By yelling at the student, he intimidated the students from speaking out about their opinions. Mill thinks persecution and intimidation are very harmful when discussion opposing sides. How can the minority have the courage to speak up if they are constantly worried about being ridiculed?

    It is hard to say whether the punishment is correct or not. Without punishing the student, there be similar situations in a public school where a student could say something harmful and get away with it because this 14 year old did. He did not direct it towards anyone in particular, so luckily no one was harmed directly, but maybe this punishment will prevent students from getting harmed in the future. Mill would probably not approve of the punishment because it limits freedom of expression, but he also would not approve of the actions of both student and teacher.

  9. Jason Cohen Says:

    In discussing the principles of free speech, it is crucial we dont neglect the notion that there are limitations discussed in free speech. That 9/20 lecture dives into the various restrictions, and in my humble opinion this is a scenario where free speech can and should in fact be punished. By making derogatory claims at a social group, you are instilling fear into those that fall into it. This is not only politically unjust, but also a violation of the very principles of free speech. Obviously, this student has a right to believe in what he believes. However, a politically and socially correct approach against homosexuality would be in the form of a protest. THAT is a principle that falls under Mill’s notions of free expression.

  10. ngamin1614 Says:

    In this issue I think the student was punished too harshly. I think the punishment he should have received was probably a talk with the principal or someone else in authority about what he did wrong and why what he said should not always be said in a public setting. The kid did not direct his comment at anyone else and I don’t think he tried to harm anybody either. I think his motives were just to talk to his friend about what he believes. And is it really right for the school to give a suspension to someone for just expressing their belief? This kid probably grew up with his parents and his religion telling him that homosexuality was wrong. It’s just simply what he believes.

    Now, I don’t agree with what the student said. Those kinds of things CAN harm people if directed at certain individuals. Which is why I think he needs to just be sat down and talked to. Just make sure this never happens again, and then it’ll all be okay. There is no need to suspend a kid based on his beliefs.

    We recently have had a few posts discussing that pro-life display up on the diag and the issues that go along with that. I believe that that display was much worse than what this student did. The pro-life display put up gruesome images that I do actually think harmed the students here. Students were disturbed and felt uncomfortable around that, which I think is a form of harm. One could argue that people feel uncomfortable with what this student said as well. But, there are 2 major differences here: 1. The student is 14 years old and just needs to learn not to say these things. He’s still young and has time to learn these things. And 2. The student, I believe, didn’t set out to purposely harm someone, he just told his beliefs to a single friend and didn’t try to harm an individual on purpose. The display in the diag set out to make people uncomfortable so they could get people to understand their point of view. Since they purposely tried to disturb people, I think that they were a lot worse.

  11. antuck Says:

    Let me start out by saying that I typically role my eyes when I hear people going on about how Fox News; I always think, “It may be biased, but it can’t be *that* bad.” Well, now I’m beginning to think that it is indeed *that* bad.

    What the Fox article leaves out is the teacher’s side of things. This is a public letter from Martin Vann, a member of the a LGBTQ group called S.A.V.E.S..

    “Among other incidents, Mr. Franks [the teacher] maintains a ‘word wall’ for his German IV class on which he posts articles and images from several journals, including the German magazine, Stern. One of these articles concerned gay rights in Germany, and included a photo of two men kissing. The group of four boys concerned was sitting near this image immediately before Mr. Franks found it had been ripped from the wall. The student and his lawyer are now asserting that including this photo among the others constituted his teacher’s ‘imposing acceptance of homosexuality’ in his classroom. These students subsequently took every opportunity to denounce homosexuality in class, frequently without context; that is, with the topic having otherwise been broached.”

    The media is portraying the kid as some sort of victim, who tried to make a controversial but thoughtful point expressing his opinions. If you do a little more research, you find out he’s just another 14-year-old brat.


    As for the question in the title: I don’t think we can know. Based on what we read of Mill, there’s really no way to tell if he would support banning offensiveness like this in public schools. I think Mill’s arguments apply to something like this, but there may be exceptions Mill would allow because the situation is quite specific (e.g. maybe Mill would have supported punishment for this because Dakota is using class time to share personal opinions that were uncalled for).

  12. Brian Robinson Says:

    In this situation, Mill would disagree with the school and the punishment given to the boy. The reason behind this is because the boy was simply stating his opinion in a public setting. It does not say whether the school was a public school or private school and that does make a difference; private schools can have more control over their students and are free to create whatever rules and regulations they seem fit. Conversely, public schools have to abide by state regulations and have less total control over the students. Regardless of what type of school, however, Mill would still argue against the punishment. He states that, “any idea, whether right or wrong, should not and can not be oppressed because it promotes discussion and the sharing of information.” This boys opinion can be right or wrong but it should not be silenced when he was not directing it toward any homosexual in particular.

    Mill always promotes free speech no matter what the setting. I personally think there should be more limitations but this is about Mill’s theories not mine. Although at the 9/20 lecture we did vote saying that speech should be restricted if it is hate speech, none of us are Mill or at his intellectual level. The world is a more politically correct place now than in Mill’s time but even so, Mill would support the boys right to express his opinion. As stated in the article, would the school punish someone for stating that homosexuality is good? Probably not, which supports Mill’s statement that all speech, no matter its content, should be discussed so people can learn and share ideas.

  13. William Burton Says:

    You are saying that the student’s freedoms of speech and expression were limited by the school suspending him, but if that student were being a distraction wouldn’t he therefore have been limiting the teachers freedoms of speech and expression?

    Ultimately, for me, this comes down to who most deserves to be heard in the classroom, the teacher or the student? I don’t think most people will argue that a teachers right to teach surpasses a students right to tell everyone that he hates gays.

  14. William Burton Says:

    correction, I don’t think most people will argue that a teachers right to teach IS SURPASSED BY a students right to tell everyone he hates gays.

  15. hjclec Says:

    Personally I believe the 14 year old boy who clearly stated, “homosexuality is wrong,” deserved his punishment of one day in-school suspension and two days of out-of-school suspension. The young man’s comment does have the power to silence, intimidate, or even mentally harm any homosexuals who overheard the comment. I do think his comment was a form of hate speech.

    I feel that the school’s responsibility is to create an environment conducive to learning. I think that everybody should feel safe at his or her school. If a student overhears hate speech, then this could definitely have the potential to distract them from their learning. Any time a student doesn’t feel safe then I feel their learning potential is reduced. For example if I were homosexual and heard someone speaking out against homosexuality, then I would feel threatened. I would think about what that person just said instead of paying attention in class. I would worry about my safety. I may even skip a class that the person who is against homosexuality is in.

    And maybe the young boy who overtly said, “homosexuality is wrong,” didn’t realize the consequences of his statement. Maybe it didn’t occur to him that there could’ve been a homosexual in the room. Maybe he didn’t realize how exactly this would make a homosexual feel. In this case I feel that the student should not only be suspended, but be given a stern talking to. This talking to would hopefully make him realize the consequences of his action.

    Then maybe the school should send out an email that lets everyone know that hate speech isn’t to be permitted, because it hinders the learning environment. I know that throughout my schooling I was told of the standards and expectations of my school. These expectations were set to make the school the best learning environment it could be. Letting people know this informations could prevent future incidences, with things like hate speech.

    There are always going to be people out there, who are similar to Mill, that think that free speech should always be permitted. But specific situations where free speech could threaten the learning environment or eventually lead to someone being physically harmed should be considered. In these specific situations I feel that free speech can be restricted.

  16. matthewlocascio Says:

    First of all, Mill would definitely side with the boy who made the comment. For one thing, Mill believes in freedom of speech and expression and argues that it should never be limited by any means. The only way that speech can be limited is through the context and way in which it is expressed. In this case, during discussion in a public forum like a classroom, any form of expression is tolerable due to the open nature of school discussion.

    Now looking at what the child said and if he should have been punished for his comments: I do not think he should have been punished for his actions. It is a free country and we all as Americans are entitled to freedom of expression and opinion. If he truly believes homosexuality is wrong from a religious perspective then he is entitled to say so. We also have freedom of religion in the United States and if homosexuality is against his religion then he is entitled to his opinion. It can be seen as exercising his religion in a way. He is preaching a held belief in his religion and punishing him for this action is a violation of his freedom of expression.

    It should be understood that there is a big difference between an opinion and legislature. This 14 year old believing that homosexuality is wrong is far from having legislation saying homosexuality is “against the law.” Yes, there are laws in place currently forbidding same sex marriage. But there is a growing trend in the country where I believe same-sex marriage will slowly be allowed in all states (New York has started this movement). Besides this, homosexuality is not against the law or wrong from the government’s standpoint. As a Catholic, homosexuality is not recognized by the religion, being a religion that understands marriage as a traditional bond between a man and a woman. I personally do not agree with same-sex marriage, also believing the term marriage i defined as the bond between a man and a woman. Before I am judged, hear that I also do not feel it is within the power of the government to prevent someone from doing something that makes them happy: in this case same-sex marriage. There is a distinction between opinion and law. I feel same-sex marriage is wrong, and that is my opinion. But I also believe that is should be legal for same-sex marriage. Just because I don’t agree with it doesn’t mean I can decide for the rest of the country. This argument applies to this 14 year old kid. He is expressing an opinion he thinks is correct in his eyes, but is in no way forcing beliefs upon anyone else or trying to make it “illegal” to be homosexual. He should not have been punished for his actions.

  17. tchung22 Says:

    I believe that the punishment was too harsh, especially because he did not direct his comments toward a specific student. Rather, he offered a generalization. You ask in your post, is there a difference between one student stating that homosexuality is wrong and another student stating that homosexuality is right? I definitely think there is a considerable difference because the former has the potential to intimidate a certain group of people whereas the latter states that homosexuality is a good ideal without specifically intimidating heterosexuals.

    Regarding this issue, Mill would be in support of the boy’s act of stating his beliefs and publicly offering his opinions on homosexuality. Mill argued that opinions should be spread so individuals can decide what to believe in for themselves. Applied to this case, the student will realize the error of his thought and change his mind to the truth, or he will further reinforce his correct notion and develop an even clearer perception of the truth. In either case, the outcome is positive and provides a greater good. Thus, Mill would support this case of freedom of speech.

    I believe that school officials and teachers do have the right to restrict certain opinions. If they believe certain opinions are offensive and intimidating to others, they have the right to silence those opinions. His religion may have taught him these beliefs against homosexuality, but if they mentally harm other students, the school has the right to silence that belief. However, I believe that the school acted too harshly upon the student and the punishment did not fit the crime because expressing his beliefs, not toward any specific person, should not warrant suspension.

%d bloggers like this: