MICHIGAN – A federal court jury Thursday awarded $4.5million to an openly gay former University of Michigan student body president who accused a former state attorney of stalking and defaming him.
The civil case involved Andrew Shirvell, the former assistant attorney general fired in 2010 after he stirred a national controversy with his campaign against Christopher Armstrong, at the time U-M’s student body president.
Shirvell, a U-M alumnus, created the Chris Armstrong Watch blog, calling him “a radical homosexual activist, racist, elitist and liar.” He had cast the blog as speech protected by the First Amendment.
Standing outside federal courtin downtown Detroit shortly after the verdict, Armstrong said he was “elated.”
“This is not just a victory for myself — it’s a victory for a lot of other people,” Armstrong said. “It sends a message to bullies.”
Armstrong, who graduated in 2011, had said Shirvell contacted his friends, showed up at his public appearances and insulted his family and friends on the blog.
Shirvell, who represented himself, said the jury award was “grossly excessive” and vowed to appeal with help from the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based nonprofit national public interest law firm.
“It’s just shocking that a jury would trample on my First Amendment rights the way they did,” he told The News. “That’s why the case should’ve been thrown out months ago by the judge. … Juries give First Amendment rights short shrift.”
Shirvell also said he’s unemployed and “there’s no possible way” he could pay the verdict, but he is prepared to fight the case even to the Supreme Court.
Armstrong, who filed the lawsuit in April 2011, had offered to drop the suit if Shirvell apologized and retract his statements.
Attorney Deborah Gordon said the jury’s decision came down to holding someone accountable for unacceptable behavior. “It means the community is not going to stand by and watch this happen to another person,” she said.
The impact also appeared to have swayed jurors, said Larry Dubin, a law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy.
“The First Amendment does not protect language that defames someone’s reputation or conduct that constitutes stalking or intentionally causes significant emotional damage to an intended victim,” he said. “It seems that the jury in this case was highly offended by the conduct … and expressed that outrage by awarding a very large verdict.”
The award caps a scandal that gained national attention.
The suit claimed Shirvell “developed a bizarre personal obsession” with Armstrong in early 2010 after claiming he was a radical homosexual activist.
Shirvell had created a Facebook group under the name of “U of M Alumni and Others Against Chris Armstrong and his Radical MSA (Michigan Student Assembly) Agenda.” Facebook shut down the page, but a blog was created spreading false and defamatory information, the suit said.
Earlier this year, a federal judge declined to dismiss the lawsuit against him. And in March, a Michigan hearing officer upheld Shirvell’s 2010 firing by then-Attorney General Mike Cox for using state computers to wage a campaign against Armstrong.
Shirvell had appealed, saying his conduct was protected by the First Amendment. But William Hutchens of the Michigan Civil Service Commission said the dismissal was just and the attorney engaged in “hate speech” on a blog and “physical and mental harassment.”
Last year, Armstrong announced he and his family were establishing a scholarship for bullied students. Gordon said money from the verdict would go to the fund.