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From the Daily: Bittersweet freedom

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published November 7, 2012

Following a ruling by Lansing judge Paula Manderfield, former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell will be allowed to collect unemployment benefits in the wake of his termination by the state. Earlier this year, the Michigan Civil Service Commission decided to dismiss Shirvell due to “harassing conduct” including “reprehensible speech, lies and half-truths” published on his online blog, “Chris Armstrong Watch.” Shirvell created the blog in 2010 in response to the election of Chris Armstrong, the first openly gay president of the University’s student government then called Michigan Student Assembly. The blog attacked Armstrong for pushing a “radical homosexual agenda.”

Although Shirvell’s words and actions may be utterly disgraceful and morally reprehensible, they’re protected under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and as a result, legal. Therefore, Paula Judge Manderfield’s decision to award Shirvell unemployment benefits was justified.

Shirvell’s blog accuses Armstrong of promoting “gay ‘marriage’ rights and 'adoption' rights.” It has also included a picture of Armstrong behind a rainbow flag and swastika. Shirvell has even appeared on a short television spot, during which he said Armstrong was “acting like a gay Nazi.” After Shirvell refused to retract his statements, Armstrong filed a defamation lawsuit in 2011. A federal jury in Detroit found Shirvell guilty and ordered him to pay Armstrong $4.5 million in damages. During the litigation, Shirvell was fired from his position as assistant attorney general due to his “harassing conduct” that “made a media spectacle of himself and the Department of the Attorney General.” Shirvell then applied for unemployment benefits, but was denied. Judge Manderfield overturned that decision, explaining that Shirvell “was fired for constitutionally protected speech” rather than misconduct.

The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency states that unemployment benefits are “intended to provide temporary income as you seek new employment.” Still, there are restrictions to who can receive them. The Michigan Employment Security Act asserts that a person cannot receive unemployment benefits if they were “suspended or discharged for misconduct connected with the individual’s work...” Michigan defines misconduct as “willful and wanton disregard of the employer's interest, or of the employer's reasonable standards of behavior … the actions of the worker must show gross negligence.” However, the state also says, “the mere inability to do the job, or good-faith errors in judgment, is not considered misconduct in an unemployment compensation case.”

The dismissal of Shirvell as assistant attorney general was sensible, as his behavior was outrageously offensive and was founded on baseless prejudice. Nevertheless, Shirvell was legally allowed to express and defend his personal beliefs. Thus, Shirvell reasonably believed that what he was doing was legal, from his point of view, moral.

This does not qualify as “willful and wonton disregard,” but rather a “good-faith error in judgment.” Even if calling a student a “gay Nazi” on television is grossly unethical, it’s not illegal. As a community, the University should remember that everyone, especially those we disagree with, must be treated fairly and justly. If we’re unwilling to protect the rights of those we disagree with, we have no grounds to expect protection of our own rights.