October 1, 2010 at 1:00 am

Assistant AG suspended over gay-bashing blog

Attorney General Mike Cox changed his stance Thursday, suspending Andrew Shirvell after the assistant attorney general attracted national attention for a controversial blog that ridicules and denounces a University of Michigan student leader for his gay advocacy, religious beliefs and character.

The suspension came a day after Cox told CNN he didn't intend to fire Shirvell, citing civil service rules that protect government employees from being "fired willy-nilly" for exercising their rights of free speech.

Cox said he hadn't earlier read all of Shirvell's blog, "Chris Armstrong Watch," that dogs Armstrong, the 21-year-old, openly gay president of U-M's student government and accuses him of "anti-Christian behavior," "mocking God," promoting homosexuality and trying "to recruit your sons and daughters" into the gay lifestyle.

"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."

But Cox also took a shot at Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who posted a Twitter item Thursday saying she would have fired Shirvell.

"I don't know why she's so freaking irresponsible. ... she went to Harvard Law School," Cox said. "The civil service rules are a huge shield for free speech and she knows that."

As governor, Granholm enacted policies applying to state workers that bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- but those rules apply to the workplace, not to what employees say or blog after-hours. The rules allow political appointees like Cox to fire employees for "just cause," including "conduct unbecoming a state employee," said Matt Fedorchuk, a spokesman for the state department of civil service.

What determines that conduct isn't explicitly described.

The suspension caps a scandal that became national news after the Michigan Daily student newspaper described Shirvell's blog in early September. The blog, which closed to the public Thursday, called Armstrong "a radical homosexual activist, racist, elitist and liar" who was "advancing a radical homosexual agenda."

Published reports say the blog also claimed Armstrong is "Satan's representative on the student assembly" and a "privileged pervert."

Several pages on Facebook have urged Cox to fire Shirvell, including one that has more than 6,000 "fans."

Throughout the scandal, Cox rebuked the assistant -- who he described as the "lowest level" staff attorney -- but said he wouldn't fire him.

Armstrong and Shirvell weren't available for comment Thursday.

Armstrong is seeking a personal protection order against Shirvell, who has picketed locations frequented by Armstrong, including his residence and Ann Arbor bars. A hearing is scheduled Monday, Cox said.

Also Thursday, Diane Brown, a spokeswoman for campus police, confirmed Shirvell is subject to an ongoing investigation of "harassing or stalking" and banned from campus. Shirvell was read a trespass warning on Sept. 14 that bars him from setting foot on campus, Brown said. Shirvell is appealing the order, but no hearing date has been set.

Cox declined to explain why he suspended Shirvell beyond saying he may have overlooked some activity described on the blog.

Cox also said Armstrong is "still to me a kid" while Shirvell, 10 years older, is behaving in an immature manner.

"I'm his employer and I have to start with the premise that he's a civil service employee and what can be done within that," Cox said.

Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, backed Cox's interpretation of civil service rules on Thursday.

"You can say what you want on your own time. ... We believe that the answer to hate speech is more speech," Kaplan said.

Larry Dubin, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, said he doubts that Shirvell can effectively perform his job representing the public, when he's forcefully expressed his "biblical" views condemning homosexuality as the work of the devil. "My real concern is whether as an attorney for the Michigan Attorney General's Office, he can competently represent gay people in our state," Dubin said.

"Perhaps that raises a legitimate question as to his competency to hold this job, rather than examining his right to speak his brand of hate."

lberman@detnews.com">lberman@detnews.com (313) 222-2032 Staff Writer Oralandar Brand-Williams contributed.