The Mackinac Center, Free Speech and the MEA

It was 10 years ago this March that the Mackinac Center and the First Amendment scored a major victory against the Michigan Education Association when the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the union’s lawsuit against us.

Both the lawsuit and its outcome affirmed some very important truths. In an age when truth too often gets swept aside in favor of less lofty things, this was refreshing and exhilarating. Was it of “Biblical” proportions? No, but it was nonetheless a David vs. Goliath moment.

In one corner was an upstart, privately funded (which means voluntarily funded) think tank in little Midland with a staff of 30. In the other was a giant East Lansing-based labor union — funded by compulsory dues — with a staff 20 times larger, extracting cash from more than 100,000 Michiganders whether they liked it or not.

But thankfully, truth is not a numbers game. You can be alone and you can be right, as my old Grove City College economics professor Hans Sennholz used to say.

The background to the court battle is crucial to the story. Goliath in this case harbored a smoldering grudge against David, thanks to a string of previous skirmishes.

The Mackinac Center appeared on the Michigan scene in 1988. It was a time when Big Labor dominated Capitol corridors and the MEA was chief among them. From the most humble origins rose a voice to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. We put school choice on the public radar screen, but the MEA didn’t want to hear it. Over the MEA’s objections, we made household words of “privatization” and “competitive contracting,” even as our research exposed that at its own headquarters the union was a frequent practitioner of both.

A funny thing happened on the road to Censorship City: a big orange cone called free speech. When then-MEA President Luigi Battaglieri in 2001 said “Frankly I admire what the Mackinac Center has done,” we quoted him on it. The union sued, seeking access to our donor list. The Court of Appeals wasn’t buying it. The smoke cleared and there was Goliath flat on his face. An eternal principle was upheld: When you call a press conference, don’t be surprised if you actually get quoted.

Many Michiganders never thought of the giant the same way again. Even editorial writers who rarely shared our perspective assailed Goliath for his anti-social behavior. We proved that standing your ground for what you know is right can pay big dividends.

All colorful metaphors aside, the Mackinac Center’s win in this important case truly was one for the history books. It must be understood as much more than a victory for a defendant in a single lawsuit. It was a triumph for all residents of Michigan. If you believe in the strength of argument over intimidation, the power of truth over deception and the virtue of choice over monopoly, this was your victory too!