A federal jury awarded $4.5 million to Chris Armstrong in his lawsuit against former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell. Armstrong filed the suit, which included allegations of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and stalking, in response to a series of wild accusations (many of them anti-gay) that Shirvell made about Armstrong after Armstrong’s historic election as the first openly gay student-body president at the University of Michigan. Shirvell, who has described himself as a Christian citizen merely exercising his First Amendment rights, published most of the statements on his blog, the “Chris Armstrong Watch”; Shirvell told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he started the blog because he opposed Armstrong’s “policy positions” on a number of campus issues, such as gender-neutral housing. He also believed that Armstrong would “use his position to promote homosexual rights,” which “deeply offended” him.
You can learn more about the case, its disturbing facts, and the verdict here. You can also watch an old-but-informative (and hysterical) Daily Show video that I linked to in an earlier post.
The jury found in favor of Armstrong on all counts, as you can see from the full verdict form, which I’ve posted. The verdict form also lists all the statements that the jury found to be defamatory. Evidently, Shirvell kept himself busy with the bad-mouthing, as it’s quite a few pages.
Here are just a few of the statements that Shirvell posted on his blog, and which the jury found to constitute defamation:
- “[Armstrong is] a racist liar who believes he has the right to spit in his constituents’ faces.”
- “[Armstrong] hosted an orgy at his University of Michigan dorm . . . at which ‘homosexual shenanigans’ were rampant, according to one participant.”
- “OUTRAGE ALERT: Armstrong Engages in Sexual Escapades at ‘Churches & Children’s Playgrounds’”
At trial, Shirvell either was unable or did not try to demonstrate that these statements were true. (If he had shown they were true, he wouldn’t have lost on the defamation claim. Truth is an absolute defense to alleged defamation.)
On the other hand, at least one part of one of these statements is true. Shirvell did–in a literal, technical sense–correctly quote a party-goer who referred to “homosexual shenanigans” taking place at the supposed orgy. (Shirvell calls the quoted source a “participant” in the “orgy.”) One big problem for Shirvell–other than the fact that the party was not an orgy–is that the “shenanigans” statement was quite obviously made in jest; indeed, the person who is quoted appears to be mocking Shirvell. You can see for yourself at this link, where I’ve posted the Facebook conversation in question. Either Shirvell is unable to pick up on irony, or he purposely misrepresented the “homosexual shenanigans” quote in his blog attack on Armstrong. Incidentally, he also relied on the “shenanigans” statement in a brief to the court, in an attempt to convince the judge that certain comments about the “orgy” were not defamatory.
Perhaps readers will think I’m dwelling too much on one of many, many statements here–and it’s hardly the worst one. In response, I would say that–aside from being amused by the word “shenanigans”–I think the misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations surrounding this incident illustrate a broader trend in the Shirvell case: namely, that it’s often difficult to tell whether Shirvell deliberately misrepresented facts, or whether his statements are instead evidence that his perceptions of the world are completely irrational and disconnected from reality. Or both.
In any event, Shirvell continues to claim, even after the verdict, that his statements are entitled to constitutional protection under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The judge and jury clearly didn’t buy that argument, but could Shirvell be right? The First Amendment doesn’t create a right to defame someone (much less does it protect a right to stalk someone). It does, however, put limits on what can count as actionable defamation. I’ll take a look at that issue in future posts, as the question of whether harassment is ever protected “speech” comes up often in bullying matters in a variety of contexts.