Andrew Shirvell at a May 8 rally in Ann Arbor, which he attended for the sole purpose of heckling openly gay U of M student body president Chris Armstrong. BTL photo by Jessica Carreras

UPDATE: UM student heckler Shirvell takes leave of absence

Community, university shows outpouring of support for harassed student president

by Jessica Carreras

Update: The hearing in the Washtenaw County Trial Court for a personal protection order against Andrew Shirvell, which was filed by Chris Armstrong Sept. 13, has been moved. The hearing will now be held at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 25.

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell, who made national news last week after word spread of his anti-gay blog attacking University of Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong, has taken a 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, the openly gay 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. The attorney general's office has not yet commented if or when Shirvell might return to his job.

Armstrong takes action

Beyond media discourse, legal action has been taken by Armstrong.

Website AnnArbor.com first reported this 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 is set for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 4 before Judge Nancy Francis, who denied Armstrong's request to issue the order immediately.

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.

The former has 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 Spectrum Center also released a statement this week, urging those concerned with the issue to take action in a number of ways, including attending one of several discussions on the issue, calling Cox's office, and changing their Facebook status to read "Elected By Us, Respected by Us - In support of Chris Armstrong."

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 called on Republican AG candidate Bill Schuette to join him in his message to Cox.

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."

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