UM student harasser Shirvell takes leave of absence

Community, university shows outpouring of support for openly gay student president

by Jessica Carreras

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell, who made national news after word spread of his anti-gay blog attacking University of Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong, has taken a paid leave of absence.

The news, confirmed by Attorney General Mike Cox's office Sept. 30, caps off a week where Shirvell quickly went from local blogger to national symbol for anti-gay bigotry.

In May, Between The Lines identified Shirvell at a rally held outside of the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's production of "The Laramie Project," where members of Westboro Baptist Church were expected to be protesting the play.

Instead, the rally was faced with a different foe: Shirvell, who spent his time there interrupting a speech given by then newly elected student president Chris Armstrong, and holding a sign calling Armstrong a "racist liar."

Further investigation revealed that Shirvell runs a blog called "Chris Armstrong Watch," on which he posts photos and comments about the openly gay student president, who Shirvell frequently refers to as a "radical homosexual activist."

The country caught word of Shirvell's antics when he was interviewed on "Anderson Cooper 360" Sept. 28.

Cooper grilled Shirvell, reading him definitions of the words "bigot" and "cyber-bullying" and asking him if he thought either term applied to him.

Cox also appeared on "AC 360" Sept. 29, saying that Shirvell's blogging is protected under the First Amendment and that his job is safe.

"Mr. Shirvell is sort of a front-line grunt assistant prosecutor in my office," Cox said. "He does satisfactory work and off-hours, he's free to engage under both our civil service rules, Michigan Supreme Court rulings and the United States Supreme Court rule."

Cox, however, changed his tone as things continued to heat up, admitting to the Detroit News Sept. 30 that he hadn't yet read all of Shirvell's blog when he made his comments on Cooper's show.

"I'm at fault here," Cox said. "I've been saying for weeks that (Shirvell's) been acting like a bully, that his behavior is immature, but it's after-hours and protected by the First Amendment."

However, news that Shirvell was "suspended" was quickly rebuffed by Cox's office, who said that Shirvell's temporary departure was his decision.

Cox had indicated in his appearance on "Anderson Cooper 360" that his response to the issue might be different if legal action was taken against Shirvell. Cox spokesman John Sellek has said Shirvell could face a disciplinary hearing when he returns. Sellek said he couldn't say what that hearing might involve, but Cox has said he's troubled that Shirvell videotaped police breaking up a party at Armstrong's house in Ann Arbor over Labor Day weekend.

Armstrong takes action

Beyond that, legal action has already been taken by Armstrong.

Website AnnArbor.com first reported last week that Armstrong has sought a restraining order against Shirvell in an application filed with the Washtenaw County Trial Court Sept. 13. In the application, Armstrong calls Shirvell "a threat to my own personal safety," citing instances where Shirvell had taken photos and video footage outside of Armstrong's home, as well as followed him to various locations.

A hearing for the request was set for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 4 before Judge Nancy Francis, who denied Armstrong's request to issue the order immediately, but was pushed back to 1:30 p.m. Oct. 25, which court officials said was due to paperwork issues.

On Sept. 14, University of Michigan campus police also took action, reading Shirvell a "trespass order," meaning that he is prohibited from setting foot on UM's campus.

Armstrong read a statement addressing the issue at a recent student assembly meeting.

"I will not back down. I will not flinch. I will not falter. I will not succumb to any unwarranted attacks. What I will do is I will carry on with the utmost pride and vindication," Armstrong said. "I, along with the rest of this assembly, were elected to this body to represent the university. And nothing said about us, or regarding our personal merits, will waive our commitment to serve the student body."

University, politicians, community weigh in

Community response to the issue has centered around two key points: support Chris Armstrong and fire Andrew Shirvell.

Both points have generated responses from various University of Michigan officials, as well as the school's LGBT office, the Spectrum Center, and innumerable LGBT and allied citizens in Michigan and beyond.

"The University of Michigan stands behind our community's value of expecting respect," said Laura Blake Jones, UM's dean of students. "We continue to take the situation very seriously."

UM President Mary Sue Coleman added in a statement, "As a community, we must not and will not accept displays of intolerance. We are heartened, but not surprised, by the response of the campus community in supporting Chris. We are impressed with his resiliency and stand by him and the important work he is doing on behalf of all of our students."

The response on social media networks has been overwhelming as well, ranging from reposts of stories and videos about the battle to the creation of several popular Faceebok groups. As of press time, the group "Fire Andrew Shirvell" had over 14,000 fans; "We Support Chris Armstrong" had over 15,000.

Several Michigan politicians and hopefuls have also joined the debate.

Democratic attorney general candidate David Leyton released a statement Sept. 29 "demanding Attorney General Mike Cox fire his assistant for harassing and stalking an openly gay student at the University of Michigan."

Leyton referred to Shirvell's blog as "cyber-bullying" and used the situation to take a jab at his opponent, Republican AG candidate Bill Schuette, who has not taken a public stance on the issue.

"Mike Cox doesn't have the guts to do what's right and fire Andrew Shirvell, and Bill Schuette is proving that he would provide the same weak excuse for leadership as our current attorney general," Leyton said in a statement. "Michigan needs a watchdog attorney general who will stand up to bullies - not lapdogs like Bill Schuette, who is content to let bullies and stalkers continue collecting a government paycheck."

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm commented on the issue on her official Facebook and Twitter accounts Sept. 30. She stated: "If I was still attorney general and Andrew Shirvell worked for me, he would have already been fired."

On a national level, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement Oct. 1 addressing both the recent slew of suicides related to anti-gay bullying and the situation with Armstrong.

"This is a moment where every one of us - parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience - needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms. Whether it's students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion; or an adult, public official harassing the president of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay, it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop."

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