Court: Lawyer’s rants against gay student not protected
Detroit — A state attorney fired for an anti-gay campaign against a college student can’t collect unemployment benefits, the Michigan appeals court says, rejecting claims that his off-hours activities were protected by the First Amendment.
The attorney general’s office was justified in firing Andrew Shirvell in 2010 because his posts on Facebook and an anti-gay blog, as well as his campus visits and TV appearances, clearly had an adverse impact on the agency’s credibility, the court said in a 3-0 decision released Friday.
The court overturned a ruling by an Ingham County judge, who said Shirvell was entitled to jobless benefits because he was fired for exercising free speech.
“The department, as the chief law enforcement agency in the state, represents all of the citizens of Michigan irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or creed. … Shirvell’s conduct reasonably could have created the impression that neither he nor the department enforced the law in a fair, even-handed manner without bias,” the court said.
There’s no dispute that Shirvell targeted Chris Armstrong, an openly gay student government president at the University of Michigan. Shirvell appeared on local and national TV shows to defend his blog and criticize what he called Armstrong’s “radical homosexual agenda.”
In response, Attorney General Mike Cox’s office received more than 20,000 complaints.
“Shirvell’s conduct undermined one of the department’s specific missions — i.e. the integrity of its anti-cyberbullying campaign,” said judges Stephen Borrello, Christopher Murray and Peter O’Connell. “By employing an individual such as Shirvell, whose conduct Cox agreed amounted to bullying, the department undermined its own message.”
Reached for comment, Shirvell of Palm Coast, Florida, said he’ll appeal the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.
“Every public employee, whether liberal or conservative, will now be in fear of what they’re doing on their off hours,” he said.
Armstrong’s attorney, Deborah Gordon, said the decision was “excellent.”
In a separate matter, a federal jury in 2012 ordered Shirvell to pay $4.5 million to Armstrong for defamation and emotional distress. An appeal is pending.
“You cannot expect to behave in such an outrageous, illegal, harmful, menacing manner and think that your employer is going to keep you on board as a government employee and it’s not going to affect how you’re perceived by the public,” Gordon said.
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