Author's Note: This column uses some information previously published in my 2007 column "A Tale of Two Bigots."
It's not often that I have to defend a leftist because a university is trying to restrict his First Amendment rights. But I do so whenever I have the chance. It helps to set a good example for my students by showing that the First Amendment is there to protect speech - not just speech you personally agree with. (Note that it also protects those who end their sentences with prepositions). Today, I write in defense a Gene Nichol in spite of the bad example he set for students when he was President of the College of William and Mary.
For those don't remember, then- President Gene Nichol decided to remove the cross from the Wren Chapel altar at William and Mary. During the Great Depression, Bruton Parish Church gave the 2-foot tall gold altar cross to the college. It was supposed to be displayed behind the Wren Chapel altar. When Nichol was inaugurated as President of the College of William & Mary it was still on display.
Then, something strange happened in October of 2006. An administrator at William & Mary sent an email to all Wren Building volunteer student tour guides. The email noted that the cross had been removed. Later that month, President Nichol confirmed that he was the one who ordered it removed.
Later, Nichol explained his reasons for directing the cross to be stored away and put on display only during appropriate religious services. Shortly before Christmas, Nichol announced he was amending his decision – urging that the cross be displayed on Sundays only. This amended order meant that the Cross would remain hidden in a storage room six days of the week. Nichol's ostensible reason for hiding the Cross was that it caused discomfort among some students. But that was a bald faced lie.
Prior to President Nichol’s arrival, a policy was already in place that helped solve any "discomfort" that the display of the Cross might cause for anyone using the Wren Chapel. They would simply ask that the Wren Cross be removed for the duration of their event. In fact, over the course of the year preceding the presidential order, about one out of five wedding celebrations that occurred in the Chapel happened with the Wren Cross removed.
The facts of the Wren Cross controversy put Nichol's hypocrisy on full public display. His feigned interest in preventing students from being offended was also called into question by a 2008 controversy involving the Sex Workers' Art Show.