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Student at Providence College Attacked for Sharing Catholic Teaching

Harkins Hall at Providence College, Providence, RI. (Wikimedia)

At Providence College, a Catholic college operated by the Dominican Order of Preachers, a resident assistant has come under fire from the student community after posting information about the Catholic teaching on marriage on the bulletin board in his hall.

Michael Smalanskas, a senior at Providence and an RA in the St. Joseph’s Hall dormitory, put up a display on his hall bulletin board on March 1 that read, “Marriage: The Way God Intended It . . . One Man, One Woman,” with several images and a quote from the Bible.

Smalanskas tells National Review that the bulletin board wasn’t intended to target his residents or any students for their beliefs or their sexuality. In fact, he says it had nothing to do with Providence students at all. “It was basically to expose a double standard on campus that certain positions — mainly conservative and Catholic positions — are not welcome here and are treated with hatred,” he says to me in a phone interview.

When students returned from a week of spring break, they discovered the board and immediately became incensed. The board itself was completely torn down within a few hours, and groups of students began congregating in the hallway just outside Smalanskas’s room. That night, campus security approached Smalanskas and asked to bring him to another building to spend the night because they were concerned about his safety.

In addition, a drawing was placed in a dormitory restroom depicting Smalanskas being raped. He received harassing text messages from other RAs and fellow students, accusing him of creating a hostile and unsafe environment on campus. Students attacked him on social media, calling the board an act of homophobia. Another RA let himself into Smalanskas’s building and put up his own sign reading, “Providence College Welcomes Everybody.”

Shortly thereafter, students took their complaints to the Providence College administration, demanding that Smalanskas be removed from his RA position and be punished in some way. They also asked the school to create a policy governing bulletin boards so that what they consider harmful material can no longer be posted; currently, there are no rules dictating what can appear on the boards.

“Essentially what they’ve been asking for is a safe space from Catholicism,” Smalanskas tells me of the students’ demands.

Smalanskas explains that the boards are intended as a space for general information and says that RAs have been encouraged in the past to use them for political content. “There’s something of a double standard,” he adds. “When the controversy over DACA was going on in Washington, hall directors and the Office of Resident Life suggested posting pro-DACA information on the boards.” And in one of the female residence halls, an RA recently put up pictures on her board promoting romantic same-sex relationships, along with signs reading “Love is Love” and images parodying Catholic teaching on the subject.

In the wake of the attacks against him, Smalanskas has asked the Providence administration for three things. First, to condemn all acts of hatred and vandalism, including those perpetrated against him. Second, to publicly affirm that the content of his bulletin board is consistent with Catholic teaching and thus with the mission of the college. And third, to publicly affirm that freedom of expression will be protected at Providence College and that Catholic teaching will not be conflated with hate speech or bigotry.

On March 12, Smalanskas met with the college’s vice president of student affairs, Kristine Goodwin, and the vice president of mission and ministry, Father R. Gabriel Pivarnik, O.P. According to Smalanskas, the administrators “launched into full-on character assassination” against him and the meeting ended with no resolution.

On March 14, Goodwin emailed a select group of student leaders, affirming that the board was in line with Church teaching, but not addressing whether that teaching is consistent with the mission and beliefs of the college. “Every person deserves to be treated with dignity whether or not we agree with their point of view,” the email read in part. “People should resist the urge to vilify one another in words or actions.”

The email did nothing to calm the situation. The campus LGBTQ alliance, SHEPARD, planned an anti-homophobia march on campus for March 23, aimed at Smalanskas, and Goodwin expressed support for that march. “We took the vice president’s support of the march to mean she supports the idea that this board was homophobic,” Smalanskas says, “because the march this week is a direct response to the board.”

Meanwhile, a group of Providence College professors published a statement of support for Smalanskas in the local newspaper, reiterating the demands he has made of the administration.

In addition, the local Catholic bishop, Thomas J. Tobin, responded to a letter Smalanskas wrote him about the situation to express his support. “As your billboard expresses so clearly, marriage is designed by God to be a union of one man and one woman,” Tobin wrote in the letter, a copy of which National Review received from a source. “It is truly unfortunate that in explaining our Faith, you have received such a negative and even reprehensible response, particularly at a Catholic college, one that is publicly committed to professing Catholic and Dominican values.”

Tobin stated his support for Providence College President Father Brian Shanley, but went on to add:

It does seem to me that Providence College is standing at the crossroads and now has to make a conscious decision about which road to travel. . . . Will it continue to be P.C. — the Providence College we’ve come to know and love; or simply be p.c. — politically correct, the pathetic, ephemeral fashion that has, in recent years, taken such an ironclad grip on our culture?

When asked by National Review for clarification on the administration’s position regarding the billboard, the backlash, and the college’s mission, a public-affairs official said the college will not comment on the matter while its investigation is ongoing.

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