'Jesus stomping' incident raises freedom of conscience and speech issues for both sides of debate
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.
“Whether the student was reprimanded or whether an apology was given is in many ways inconsequential to the larger issue of a professor’s poor judgment,” Scott wrote. “The professor’s lesson was offensive, and even intolerant, to Christians and those of all faiths who deserve to be respected as Americans entitled to religious freedom.”
The offensive lesson wasn't Poole's idea. It came from the instructor's manual of the textbook Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach. It's author, Jim Neuliep, told Inside Higher-Ed that he is surprised by the uproar over the exercise.
"I don't know what happened at FAU, so I really can't talk about that. Do I think the exercise has been misrepresented? Yes. Do I think the intent of the exercise has been misrepresented? Yes. The press accounts have inaccurately portrayed it as an attempt to stomp on Jesus," he said.
The instructor's guide warns teachers that the exercise may be "a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings."
The instructions also say that most students will hesitate to step on the paper and that can start the discussion on the importance of symbols.
Neuliep, who teaches communications and media studies at St. Norberts College, a Catholic liberal arts college in De Pere, Wisc., told Inside Higher-Ed that few ever step on the paper and that he hasn't had a complaint in the 30 years he has been doing the exercise.
"He said that the discussion that follows tends to involve students 'talking about how important Jesus is to them, and they defend why they won’t step on it. It reaffirms their faith.' And at the same time, he said, they learn about symbols," Inside Higher-Ed reported.
But other academics say such an exercise is fraught with problems given the history of Christians being asked to denounce their faith or face death, as well as the modern-day diversity of faith on college campuses.
"Even if it's handled with consummate sensitivity, this isn't something you should ask students to do because some of them will do it," said Matthew J. Franck, director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.
He explained that some professors can exert too much influence to require something against a student's will, and many students don't have the moxie or awareness to resist.
"If you look at the way the exercise is described, it is so open to the abusive treatment of Christian students. The act of stepping on a symbol is so deprecating it could be offensive to anyone," said Franck, who is Catholic. "It's bad pedagogy and just ought to be abandoned" in future editions of the manual.
In his interview with Inside Higher-Ed, Poole said he understands the power of the word Jesus. “I am very religious,” he said. "I see how the name Jesus is symbolic. For people like myself, Jesus is my lord and savior. It's how I identify myself as a Christian."
To Lukianoff, the worst offense was how FAU handled the situation by trying to punish Rotela for complaining.
"I hope this will draw attention to the scandal of speech codes" on college campuses, he said.
Lukianoff said FAU isn't the only campus in Florida or across the country where speech codes are overly broad and abused by administrators. The FIRE website highlights such rules in its "Speech code of the month," section. Wesleyan University won the dubious honor in February for a policy that prohibits any “actions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of the individual or that degrade the individual or infringe upon his/her personal dignity.”
When such broad rules exist anyone can be guilty of anything, Lukianoff said, and students are usually end up being disciplined more than faculty or administrators. "When administrators have that kind of arbitrary use of power they end up substituting their own judgment of speech they like or dislike instead of following the principle that we presume that students have the right to complain about a class, for goodness sakes," he said.
Lukianoff, an atheist, said students can't be protected from being offended, but they also can't be forced to do or say something that violates their beliefs or be punished when they complain.
He said speech codes that follow Supreme Court guidelines of protected and unprotected speech are reasonable and workable on college campuses.
In response to whether the Florida State University System is looking into its campus speech codes, spokeswoman Kim Wilmath said in an email:
"Clearly, there were things the university could have done differently by its own acknowledgement. And we are relieved to hear that the student who initially complained about the exercise appears to be satisfied with FAU’s apology, according to FAU representatives and the student’s own comments in the media. We will continue to work closely with FAU as we prepare a response to Gov. Rick Scott’s concerns."
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