Mich. assistant attorney general’s blog targeting gay student leader raises free speech issues

By Kathy Barks Hoffman, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Mich. assistant AG’s anti-gay blog free speech?

LANSING, Mich. — An assistant attorney general is using his personal blog to target the openly gay leader of the University of Michigan’s student assembly, calling him a racist with a “radical homosexual agenda.” The lawyer claims that when he’s not at work, he has the right to say whatever he wants.

But the vociferous criticism has raised questions of just how far a civil servant can go, and whether Andrew Shirvell’s online attacks — which include putting a swastika over a gay pride flag in a photo of 21-year-old Chris Armstrong — should affect his job.

So far, Attorney General Mike Cox says no. Cox called Shirvell immature and his blog posts “distasteful,” but said he has the right to free speech. But Cox said he was troubled that the 30-year-old lawyer videotaped police breaking up a party at Armstrong’s off-campus home in Ann Arbor over Labor Day weekend.

“Part of the video is being outside this young man’s house at 1:30 on a Sunday morning. Clearly, I wouldn’t recommend that to any state employee to be doing,” Cox told The Associated Press on Thursday. “That being said … it’s not something where I can walk in one day and say, ‘I don’t like what he has on there, let’s broom him.’ He has First Amendment protections.”

Shirvell went on personal leave Thursday and is subject to a disciplinary hearing when he returns, Cox spokesman John Sellek said Friday. Personnel rules restricted Sellek from saying if Shirvell was on leave because of the outcry.

Shirvell posted the video on his blog, called Chris Armstrong Watch, which he began in April. In the Sept. 5 posting, he accused Armstrong of hosting the party with the intent to “liquor-up underage freshmen and promote homosexual activity in an effort to recruit them to the homosexual lifestyle.”

Shirvell has repeatedly called on Armstrong to resign. He has criticized Armstrong’s friends and put their Facebook postings on his blog.

The university on Thursday banned Shirvell from campus, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 2002, saying he was targeting the elected student body president “in a reprehensible manner.”

“As a community, we must not and will not accept displays of intolerance,” President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement.

Shirvell didn’t respond to phone and e-mail messages Thursday from the AP. But he told CNN on Tuesday that he regards his anti-Armstrong push as a political campaign, not a personal attack.

“This is just another tactic bringing awareness to what Chris really stands for,” Shirvell said. “The substance of the matter is, Chris Armstrong is a radical homosexual activist who got elected partly funded by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to promote a very deeply radical agenda at the University of Michigan. … I’m a Christian citizen exercising my First Amendment rights.”

Denis Dison, spokesman for the Washington-based organization, denied that the fund donated money to Armstrong’s campaign earlier this year. Dison said Armstrong, who was an intern with the fund two summers ago, told him about Shirvell’s actions and he urged him to report Shirvell to police.

“It sounded like it was getting a little strange,” Dison said. “I think everyone thinks it has crossed the line.”

“If I’m a gay person living in Michigan, this does not instill confidence that the attorney general’s office has my best interests at heart,” he added. “It’s surprising that you would keep an employee who would damage the credibility of the work that you’re trying to do in the state.”

Armstrong has applied in Ann Arbor for a personal protection order, Sellek said. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Armstrong didn’t respond Thursday to e-mail and phone messages. He has publicly said little about Shirvell or the blog. During a student assembly meeting Monday, he said he wouldn’t “succumb to any unwarranted attacks,” according to The Michigan Daily newspaper.

Shirvell was an intern with the attorney general’s office in 2003 and 2004, before being hired full-time after graduating in 2006 from the Ann Arbor campus of Ave Maria School of Law, a Catholic institution that moved to Florida last year. He worked as a scheduler for several months during Cox’s 2006 re-election bid, and now deals with criminal appeals.

Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm — the former attorney general — said on her Facebook page Thursday that, “If I was still Attorney General and Andrew Shirvell worked for me, he would have already been fired.”

But Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Shirvell’s free speech rights deserve to be protected, although she commended Cox for distancing himself from his comments.

“As offensive and as despicable as Mr. Shirvell’s comments are, they are protected expression under the First Amendment when they are not used as a direct threat,” she said. “Without making specific threats against others, this is just another example of speech that society must tolerate, even though it is profoundly disturbing and stirs many to anger.”

If Shirvell is found to have taken actions such as criminal harassment and stalking, however, “law enforcement can and should get involved,” she added.

will not be displayed