'Jesus stomping' incident raises freedom of conscience and speech issues for both sides of debate

Published: Monday, April 1 2013 1:10 p.m. MDT

Florida Atlantic University student Ryan Rotel sits for an interview with CBS News in Davie, Fla., on March 21, 2013.

CBS News

Ryan Rotela isn't talking any more about how he won an apology from Florida Atlantic University after he first faced discipline for complaining that a class exercise offended his religious beliefs.

But the controversy has a lot of other people talking about the wisdom of desecrating religious symbols to provoke classroom discussion. It's also prompted dialogue about the abuse of speech codes on college campuses to prevent students or faculty from saying something the administration doesn't like.

On Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to Florida Gov. Rick Scott asking for a revision of the codes that regulate speech at the state's colleges and universities. Scott has asked for an investigation into the FAU incident.

"We usually wouldn't support government intrusion into an institution of higher learning," said Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, a nonprofit that defends individual rights on college campuses. "But if this becomes an opportunity for Florida to get rid of speech codes at public colleges then it will actually turn a regrettable incident into a positive."

Meanwhile, Rotela is done talking about the incident. The 22-year-old convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still attends FAU while working for a landscaping business.

"I do not wish to discuss the incident further, I put it behind me last Monday," he said in an email, in which he noted that being raised by a strict, principled father influenced his response to the incident.

Charges and apologies

It was on Monday that Rotela and an attorney from the Texas-based Liberty Institute met with FAU officials to receive an apology and clear Rotela's academic record of any violations.

The violations of the school speech code stemmed from a complaint Rotela made about an exercise in an Intercultural Communications class. According to various accounts in the news media, instructor Deandre Poole told students to write the name "Jesus" on a piece of paper, place it on the floor and stomp on it.

Rotela, a junior, reportedly picked the paper up, put it on his desk and told Poole that he was "deeply offended by what you told me to do.'"

Two days later, Rotela complained to Poole's supervisor about the exercise and was reportedly told not to return to the class. He was then given a letter from the university that accused him of violating its policy prohibiting "verbal, written (including electronic communications) or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person."

Rotela said the university has never provided any evidence that he was abusive or threatening, which is why he went to the local news media to force the school's hand and clear his record. "I couldn't afford an attorney," Rotela said.

The nonprofit Liberty Institute, however, took his case, and its litigation director Hiram Sasser flew to Florida where he and Rotela met with FAU officials, who dropped the case and apologized to Rotela and the community. The school says the the so-called Jesus stomping exercise would not be used again because of the offense it caused.

“There will be no punishment,” Sasser told Fox News. “They are wiping the record clean for Ryan. They are reinstating him for a plan to complete the course without that professor.”

Poole, who did not respond to a request for an interview last week, spoke with Inside Higher-Ed over the weekend, describing why he felt threatened and reported the incident to campus police.

But while Rotela is satisfied the issue is resolved, Gov. Scott isn't. He wants assurances from state system officials that such an incident won't happen again.

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