LEWISTON — A Boston College Law School professor's appearance in anti-gay marriage advertisements in Maine caused a widespread reaction from students last week, prompting a dean to write an open letter to the campus addressing the issue.
Scott Fitzgibbon is the law professor featured in radio and television ads paid for by the Stand for Marriage Maine campaign, a group seeking to repeal Maine's law allowing same-sex marriage during a statewide vote this fall. In the television ad, Fitzgibbon says that unless the law is repealed, Mainers will face "real consequences."
"Legal experts predict a flood of lawsuits against individuals, small businesses and religious groups; church organizations could lose their tax-exempt status; homosexual marriage, taught in public schools whether parents like it or not," according to Fitzgibbon in the commercial. A written disclaimer stating that "no university endorsement is implied" is included in the ad.
Fitzgibbon did not respond to a request for an interview Monday.
In his letter addressed to the Boston College Law School Community, Dean John Garvey defended Fitzgibbon's right to express his views and added that in the past other professors have publicly expressed their support for same-sex marriage, also identifying themselves as BC law professors.
"Several of you have contacted my office to express your anger at Scott's actions, and it is hard for me to see any of our students, faculty or staff offended or hurt by the words of others," he wrote. "We work hard to create a welcoming environment for everyone at Boston College, and we do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."
Another BC law professor, Kent Greenfield, circulated a statement to "reaffirm our belief in the equality of all of our students," which picked up about 80 signatures from BC faculty and administrators, including Garvey.
"In the long run, what happens in Maine is obviously up to Mainers and I would be surprised if very many people in Maine cared what any of us thought at Boston College Law School," he said, adding that he supports Fitzgibbon's "participation in the political process."
"What concerned me primarily is what our alumni and our students were feeling," he said.
Ryan Morrison, a third-year law student and editor-in-chief of the law school's online newspaper and blog Eagleionline.com, said Fitzgibbon's appearance prompted "heated" conversations among students.
"I think it's been difficult for a lot of students to kind of weigh their commitments to free speech, especially academic freedom, against feeling personally offended by Prof. Fitzgibbon's remarks," he said.
Morrison said much of the controversy has been fueled by students who disagree with the professor's stance on the issue, but there's more to it than that.
"Also, it is a pretty common impression among students that the advertisement at least kind of mischaracterizes the couple of legal decisions that flash on the screen," he said. "A lot of students are very uncomfortable with the school's name being used in the ad."
Paul Sousa, a first-year law student at BC, said the ad was misleading.
"It was quite frankly intellectually dishonest," he said.
Sousa, who is openly gay and described himself as "an activist in general," said marriage equality is a "non-issue" in Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriage about five years ago.
"I'd say the vast majority of the responses were just dismay, they were saddened that this conversation is still going on, they felt it was settled here in Massachusetts," he said.
A memo circulated by the No On 1/Protect Maine Equality campaign from a variety of former and current Democratic state officials as well as University of Maine law school professors, also refuted claims made by Fitzgibbon in the ads.
A similar reaction among students and alumni occurred at Pepperdine University after one of its professors appeared in an ad supporting the Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California last year, prompting the school to ask that their name get dropped from the commercial.