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Jury orders lawyer to pay $4.5 million to gay University of Michigan alumnus

By Tom Watkins, CNN
August 18, 2012 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Andrew Shirvell, in an undated photo, holds a poster denouncing UM's then-student body president, Chris Armstrong.
Andrew Shirvell, in an undated photo, holds a poster denouncing UM's then-student body president, Chris Armstrong.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Shirvell calls jury award "grossly excessive"
  • Jury finds in Armstrong's favor on four counts, including defamation
  • "He's a little out there," lawyer says of Shirvell
  • Shirvell accused Armstrong of promoting a "radical agenda"

(CNN) -- A federal court jury in Detroit has awarded a $4.5 million judgment to the University of Michigan's first openly gay student body president in his suit against a former Michigan assistant attorney general who had written disparagingly about him on the Internet, the student's lawyer said.

The jury came back with the award late Thursday against Andrew Shirvell, said Deborah Gordon, a lawyer representing the plaintiff, Chris Armstrong, 22, who graduated last year.

A U.S. District Court jury found in Armstrong's favor on four counts -- defamation, stalking, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy, Gordon told CNN in a telephone interview.

Shirvell was fired from his job in the attorney general's office in 2010 after targeting the student leader online and in person -- then lying about his actions to investigators, state Attorney General Mike Cox said at the time.

Targeted student: 'It's hard not to say something'

Shirvell "repeatedly violated office policies, engaged in borderline stalking behavior and inappropriately used state resources," Cox said, referring to Shirvell's activities during his work day.

2010: Targeting student leads to firing

Asked for specifics about Shirvell's conduct, Armstrong lawyer Gordon said, "He said (Armstrong) had an orgy in a dorm room and sex in a park and that he had liquored up underage freshmen to recruit them to the 'homosexual lifestyle.'"

Shirvell also referred to Armstrong as "Satan's representative" on the Michigan Student Assembly, she said.

"He's a little out there," Gordon continued.

Shirvell, himself a University of Michigan alumnus, told CNN that he is "100% confident that the verdict will be overturned on appeal."

"I think the jury award is grossly excessive," he said. "It's absolutely outrageous. The jury's verdict was a complete trampling of my First Amendment rights."

He told CNN in 2010 that Armstrong "is a radical homosexual activist who got elected ... to promote a very deep, radical agenda at the University of Michigan."

From the archives: Assistant attorney general blogs against gay student body president

Shirvell cited Armstrong's push for gender-neutral campus housing as something he opposed. "What we're talking about is any man or woman wanting to choose to live together," he said at the time. "That's a radical redefinition of gender norms."

Gordon said that Shirvell's claim is without merit. "It's really simple," she said. "Defamation refers to statements that are false that you say about another person. If you say my neighbor is having sex in a park with children, which is literally kind of what he said here, that is defamation. That is not First Amendment-protected. It's not opinion. It's provable as false. You can be held responsible financially.

"He wants to put all his crap -- which is nothing but a bunch of fabricated lies -- under the umbrella of the First Amendment. Shame on him."

Gordon said the multimillion-dollar judgment "is probably not collectable" at this time, since Shirvell has no job.

But she said that had never been the point of the lawsuit. "We've only always wanted Chris' name cleared," she said. "All he (Shirvell) had to do was retract his lies" and Armstrong would have dropped the case.

She said Armstrong has graduated and is currently employed, but did not want to divulge for whom he is working.

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