This is Providence

Posted: Aug 28, 2014 12:01 AM

Author’s Note: Some of the themes discussed in this column were part of a speech I gave at an Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) event in July. The full speech can be viewed by clicking this link.

March 18, 2010 was one of the worst days of my life. That was the day Judge Malcolm Howard threw my lawsuit against UNCW out of court. Three years after filing suit and a full eight years after I started to criticize universities, including my own, for violating the First Amendment I lost a bid to go to trial. I also lost all credibility as a free speech advocate. Or so I thought.

That night, I called my friend Jen Honken and explained to her that all hope was lost and that I would soon have to look for a new job and abandon my work as a free speech advocate. Shortly after that conversation was over, I tried to go to sleep. But I just sat up and stared at the ceiling for eight hours until the alarm rang. I got up and started the next day the way I usually do – by making coffee and reading for about an hour and a half. Right about the time I finished reading, the phone rang. It was one of my ADF attorneys, Joseph Martins.

After telling me how sorry he was that we had lost on the motion for summary judgment, he did something unexpected. He began to tell me that what seemed like defeat, really wasn’t defeat. In fact, he said what had happened the day before was really Providence. I began to think he was losing his mind. In fact, it was good that he wasn’t in the room with me. Had he been there, I would have punched him in the nose. And that would have been bad for two reasons. First, he’s a lawyer. Second, Joe is much bigger than me.

But Joe took the time to explain himself. He said that we would likely appeal to the 4th Circuit and win an important First Amendment precedent. After all, the judge’s ruling was based on an open question in an important Supreme Court case. No circuit had yet ruled on the specific issue in our case. Indeed, we really were in a good position to establish an important legal precedent. So Joe was optimistic. I just wasn’t in the mood for his optimism.

But Joe wasn’t done yet. He insisted that there was a chance we could lose in front of the 4th Circuit. But, according to Joe, a loss at the 4th Circuit would not necessarily be a defeat either. That would mean we would have a chance to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Joe’s enthusiasm was palpable when he told me that the Supremes, if they took my case, would probably be inclined to rule in my favor. After all, Joe reasoned, the liberals on the Court would not likely issue a ruling that might restrict the free speech of college professors. Most college professors are liberals.

Joe was making sense. If I had had a decent night of sleep, I might have been encouraged. But before Joe got off the phone, he assured me again that what we had experienced wasn’t defeat. “This is not defeat,” he insisted. “This is Providence,” he added. I hung up and went to work.

I arrived in my office at about eleven a.m. to begin preparation for my afternoon classes. Shortly after I arrived, the phone rang. I answered and began speaking to a guy we will call Tim (because that’s really his name). But don’t ask me to repeat his last name. It’s one of those Greek last names so we’ll just call him Tim Dion-Greek-last-name for the sake of simplicity.

Tim told me he was calling from a college in Rhode Island. He specifically asked if I was interested in coming to speak at his college on the first day of May. He said he wanted me to speak on First Amendment issues. I asked him what the honorarium would be (because I am a filthy capitalist pig with an addiction to expensive guns and guitars). Since the price was right and the cause was just, I agreed to speak.

Before we got off the phone, I asked Tim what college he was calling from. His response stopped me in my tracks. “Providence College” was his answer. I was so taken aback that I asked him again, “What is the name of your college?” He replied, “This is Providence. Providence College in Rhode Island.”

For a split second, I thought Joe Martins was playing a trick on me. But he wasn’t. Life was about to get very interesting. And chance would play no role in the rest of the story.

…To be continued.