Did a conservative Catholic college kick out an undergraduate for publicly defending America against far-right campus extremists in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks? Or is he a chronic troublemaker wrapping himself in the flag in an attempt to justify disruptive behavior?
That's the question roiling the campus of tiny Christendom College, a Catholic liberal-arts school in Front Royal, Va. Faculty members have taken sides, students are divided and alumni are seething.
Trouble began Sept. 11, when news of the attacks on nearby Washington and New York reached campus. Michael Marshner-Coyne, 24, a junior and a Navy veteran, says his shock and anger over the attacks mushroomed when friends told him some ultra-conservative students were heard approving of the deeds as a blow to capitalism and democracy.
Marshner-Coyne says he heard one of these students, who are called "The Monarchist Group" by their campus detractors, with his own ears. "It was disgusting," he says. "I couldn't believe these things were being said at any school, much less a Catholic school."
Two days later, Marshner-Coyne wrote, printed and distributed a handbill condemning this group of faculty and students, although he used no one's name. "This group, which has no official name, consists of students and faculty plagued with several obnoxious political views, such as: representative government, like we have in America, is evil, and a Catholic king is what the world needs now."
The handbill concluded: "Indeed, students such as this [sic], while quite poor in charity and empathy, are likewise poor in intelligence." Hardly Ciceronian in its rhetorical eloquence - but tame stuff by the standards of most campus polemics. Days later, a school official asked Marshner-Coyne if he was responsible for the handbill. He denied it, but shortly thereafter confessed.
The junior was questioned before a six-member disciplinary committee consisting of faculty and staff. "They accused me of calumny, that I was intentionally spreading falsehoods," he says. "They didn't want to believe it was true." Marshner-Coyne, who ran afoul of the administration last year for posting a flier making fun of these same students, was suspended for six months. The committee vote was unanimous.
Tom McFadden, the school's information officer, said only that "Christendom College regrets that this matter has been the subject of ongoing misrepresentation and distortion. The college stands by its decision."
But a professor who served on the disciplinary committee says the decision was based on the student's prior offenses, lack of genuine contrition, and an inability to verify that anyone had made the provocative statements about the Sept. 11 attacks. "This has nothing to do with patriotism. That's absolutely idiotic," says the professor, who, like most involved with this story, requested anonymity. This is not the view of other students and faculty interviewed, who say this "anti-American" contingent really exists--and is influential.
Whatever the truth, the college administration is being bombarded with e-mails, phone calls and letters from alumni concerned about the affair, and what they believe is an unjust punishment meted out to Marshner-Coyne. "They're obsessed with doing damage control," says one faculty member. "It's all over the Internet now. They can't hold this in."
Meanwhile, Marshner-Coyne, who was ultimately expelled, is working in a local factory, and applying to other schools for the spring semester. But he doesn't know how he's going to pay for it. The military benefits he was using to pay for school will now run out before the veteran finishes his college education.