Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Well, there is always someone who finds an issue that bothers them and takes their response to a whole new level.

After the whole faked rape allegation at Duke University, it was K.C. Johnson. He went from writing a blog specifically about the allegation/trial/aftermath, to writing op-eds and letters to the editor, to writing a book, to tracking down all web-based mentions of his blog or commentary and attacking those bloggers and writers. His attacks on faculty and staff involved in the incident, and on bloggers writing about the incident, were pretty personal, consistent, and scathing. He also posted workplace emails and affiliations for pseudonymous academic bloggers. Worse yet, of course, were all of those bloggy fans who would take over comment sections on other folks' blogs for weeks afterward. In fact, he is still obsessed with the case, posting updates on the lawyers, judges, faculty, administrators, and everyone else associated with the four year old case. (I know something of these attacks, as one of the Duke faculty was a family member and a target of Johnson, and I have watched him go after Tenured Radical when she disagreed with him*.)

Well, K.C. Johnson has a rival for zealotry (though one not nearly so smart, but likely more techno-savvy) in Michigan’s Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell. Calling himself a "concerned Michigan alum," Shirvell has spent the last six months dogging the path of Chris Armstrong, the new gay student body President at the University of Michigan. He created a blog called "Chris Armstrong Watch," on which he posts:
  • information from Armstrong's Facebook page, as well as Facebook and MySpace pages of Armstrong's family and friends;
  • video he has recorded outside Armstrong's house;
  • pictures of Armstrong, some of which have been defaced with swastikas and ugly names
Shirvell's language is shrill as he interprets everything he sees or hears in the worst possible light. He also has protested around town, including at Armstrong's home, with signs decrying Armstrong and his supporters. He called Nancy Pelosi's office to inform them that their new intern was a member of a racist campus group, another of Shirvell's charges.  Most recently, he has moved on to criticizing the local reporter who covered his story (along with the reporter's family members).

Anderson Cooper is the latest to do a story and interview with Shirvell, calling it "one of the strangers stories I've reported on," and he makes it clear how outrageous Shirvell's tactics are for any critic, let alone a state employee.

It is clear that Shirvell gets to express his own opinions as a private citizen, as his boss, State Attorney General Mike Cox notes in his press statement. Yet, is it right for someone to go after an individual so doggedly and in such an ugly fashion? And how can someone in the Attorney General's office be dependable as an unbiased advocate if he spouts such homophobic language in his personal life?

Cooper notes that Armstrong is considering legal action against Shirvell. I am not a lawyer, but the Citizen's Media Law Project notes that the Michigan law requires that a statement be both "false and defamatory" for a charge of defamation. I assume Armstrong will have to show that Shirvell posted untrue, hurtful statements that were not opinion-based or had substantial (partial) truth to them, and that may be difficult. Shirvell is quite smart--knows the law as a lawyer should, and so most entries are based on some "evidence," in the form of pictures, links, etc., and they are laced with lots of opinion.

I feel sorry for Student Body President Armstrong, who probably had no idea that he would become the target of one person's focused wrath just by running for student office in college.  Few 20-21 year old students would be prepared for that kind of attack and invasion of privacy, especially by someone who isn't even a student himself. Fortunately, public opinion is on his side, as are student governments across the Big Ten. I am guessing that little will be done to stop Andrew Shervill from continuing his persecution of Armstrong until he is out of office or graduated. Let's hope he doesn't follow him to graduate school or his first job.

Update: Check out Armstrong's class response. Below is an excerpt:
“I will not back down. I will not flinch. I will not falter. I will not succumb to any unwarranted attacks. What I will do is I will carry on with the utmost pride and vindication,” Armstrong read aloud to the assembly from a written statement. “I, along with the rest of this assembly, were elected to this body to represent the University. And nothing said about us, or regarding our personal merits, will waive our commitment to serve the student body.”

*An aside: After seeing the way Dr. Johnson has gone after other bloggers, I almost hate to even bring his name, and his blog, up. But it was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about this story.

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