Shirvell ordered to pay Armstrong $4.5 million in damages

Marissa McClain/Daily
Former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell addresses members of the former Michigan Student Assembly (MSA), now Central Student Government (CSG), on September 7, 2010. Buy this photo

By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
Published August 16, 2012

Former student government president Chris Armstrong won his defamation suit against former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell, who now owes Armstrong $4.5 million in damages.

Marissa McClain/Daily
Former student body president Chris Armstrong in a 2011 photo.

But the victory may be short lived as Shirvell — who started a blog in 2010 accusing Armstrong of promoting a "radical homosexual agenda" — plans to appeal the decision, which could extend the two-year legal battle between the parties.

For now, Armstrong's lawyer, Deborah Gordon, said those involved with the victory are not necessarily celebrating the decision, but appreciating it, even if it's only the start of more litigation.

"(We are) savoring this incredible message sent by the jury as to what our community thinks about drawing the line at bullying," she said, but added that Shirvell's appeal could take at least two years to reach a conclusion.

Gordon was confident, though, that Armstrong would remain the victor in this case, even if Shirvell appeals.

"He's not going to win his appeal," she said. "It's just another waste of time just like this trial was. This should never have occurred, because he just should have retracted these statements a long time (ago)."

But Shirvell was equally as confident as Gordon — just not on who would win the appeal — and added that this case could make its way to the United States Supreme Court before it's truly over.

"(The case) will for sure be overturned on appeal either at the sixth circuit (court) in Cincinnati, or eventually at the U.S. Supreme Court — it may be a landmark First Amendment case," Shirvell said in a telephone interview.

As it stands, the decision from the federal jury in Detroit is unconstitutional, Shirvell said.

"The jury decision ... is a defeat for the Constitution. It's a clear violation of my first amendment rights; it's grossly excessive to say the least," he said. "Chris Armstrong didn't suffer anything to his reputation, he has no damages whatsoever."

Furthermore, the case was meant to make an unlawful warning to those show criticism toward homosexuality, he said.

"This is just meant to make an example of me so that in the future, people who dare to criticize a homosexual leader will be put on notice that their entire life will be destroyed by any means necessary," he said. "It's a sad day for the Constitution."

He added that members of the jury did not act on good reasoning or proper interpretation of the law, but on emotion.

"I spoke with several of the jurors afterward as we're permitted to do and it was clear to me that they ruled purely based on emotion," Shirvell said. "That's why this lawsuit should have been thrown out months ago by the judge."

But Gordon said she has a starkly different memory of the jury's opinion.

"They told him point blank none of this was personal about him and none of it was on emotion," she said."Juries don't award 4.5 million on emotion. That's ridiculous."

Shirvell also refuted a statement made by Gordon Wednesday in an interview with The Michigan Daily that Shirvell had called no witnesses during the trial.

"You can't take anything Ms. Gordon says as true, because I did have a couple of witnesses that I intended to call and they were on the witness list," he said. "Ms. Gordon opposed them and the judge threw them out."

Shirvell said those potential witnesses were the Washtenaw County assistant prosecutor, and University Spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham, adding that these witnesses would have been "damaging to Mr. Armstrong."

But Gordon said she felt otherwise.

"He didn't have a single fact witness. He didn't have a single person that would come in and say, 'oh yes these things he's saying about Chris are true,'" she said. "He had nothing, nobody, nada."

But regardless of what witnesses he presented, Shirvell said he did not have to prove anything concerning claims he made against Armstrong.

"The burden of proof is not on me. The burden of proof is always on the plaintiff," he said. "I didn't have to show anything, they had to show that the statements at issue were false and that's something that they absolutely could not do."

Over the course of two years since Shirvell first gained notoriety for his blog, the case has received national attention. It was featured on the "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "Anderson Cooper 360". Shirvell said that Armstrong and Gordon wanted the media attention, and said Gordon — whom Shirvell is currently suing for defamation — was a "media mongerer."

Gordon said that's the opposite of the truth.

"His actions were flat-out outrageous, so of course (court proceedings) drew media attention," she said. "It's him that drew media attention, not me."

Nonetheless, Gordon said the atmosphere of the courtroom was entirely civil.

"Chris is always a total and complete gentleman," she said. "And I can't say that Mr. Shirvell wasn't either."

Overall, Shirvell was resolute in his commitment to this case and said that he will now be working with the Thomas More Society — a Chicago-based Christian legal group — for legal aid.

"They know they'll never see a penny, it's uncollectable," he said. "This is not the final word — it's a temporary blip."