I missed this incident of Academia Gone Wild when it happened, as I was in Rome covering the papal conclave, but it has all the hallmarks of cluelessness and faux “tolerance” that we’ve come to expect from higher education. It started with a professor of intercultural communications (no, seriously) at state-run Florida Atlantic University requiring students to write the name Jesus in large block letters on a piece of paper, and then stomp on it. One student — one? — refused to comply and told the professor that he would file a complaint over the assignment, which offended his religious beliefs. The school promptly punished the student, who might still have been suspended had the case not attracted a large amount of media and legal attention, and hopefully a large number of jaws hitting the pavement.
Now Governor Rick Scott wants an explanation of this incident, and a very detailed plan on how FAU would never let it happen again:
Florida Atlantic University has apologized for a controversial classroom lesson that led critics to accuse the school of religious intolerance. But that didn’t stop Gov. Rick Scott for stepping into the fray on Tuesday.
Scott penned a letter to State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan demanding an investigation. “I am requesting a report of the incident, how it was handled and a statement of the university’s policies to ensure this type of ‘lesson’ will not occur again,” Scott wrote.
Earlier this month, FAU instructor Deandre Poole told students in an intercultural communications class to write the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper, throw it on the floor and stomp on it. Ryan Rotela, a junior at FAU’s Davie campus, later complained he was thrown out of class when he refused to participate. …
Rotela, who describes himself as a devout Mormon, went to Poole’s supervisor two days later to discuss the incident.
FAU officials defended the professor last week, but Rotela told The Palm Beach Post that he and an attorney from the Texas-based Liberty Institute met with FAU Dean of Students Cory King at the school’s Boca Raton campus on Monday and received an apology and a pledge that the disciplinary charges against him would be dropped.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has an excellent and nuanced look at the competing interests of academic freedom in play in this incident. The school, the professor, and the student all have varying levels of protection for their speech in and out of the classroom, and that can make it very difficult to sort these incidents out to anyone’s satisfaction. Lukianoff’s concern focuses on the school’s reaction to the incident more than the Jesus Stomp itself:
Further, charging the student with an offense for complaining about the assignment brings up serious free speech and due process concerns. If the professor had stepped on the word Jesus on his own, it could be argued that it was simply a provocative pedagogical technique. Instead, however, FAU saw fit to charge Rotela with violating a speech code FIRE has given a “yellow light” (on a red, yellow, and green light scale, depending on the severity of the First Amendment violation) because of the ease with which it can be unconstitutionally applied. And unconstitutionally applying its speech code to a student guilty of nothing except complaining about a professor’s class looks to be exactly what FAU did here.
Under any circumstances, the case highlights disturbing trends I highlight in my book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the end of American Debate. First of all, the double standard is glaring. I have zero doubt that a professor would have immediately understood the problem with the assignment if the name to be written on the paper had been “Mohammed” or “Martin Luther King” instead of Jesus. I also hope that a professor would understand he had crossed a line if he asked an atheist, like me, to bow down to a shrine. The fact is that universities these days rely on double standards to function, as the overwhelming majority of colleges, like FAU, maintain unconstitutional speech codes that typically ban inappropriate, offensive, or hurtful speech. If the plain language of these codes were followed, they would not last a day, since every professor and student would be found guilty of violating them. In order to exist, these kinds of codes must be selectively applied.
The incident also highlights attitudes about Christian students on America’s campuses. In my time at FIRE, I’ve seen a sustained effort to punish evangelicals or push them off campus to a degree that would never be tolerated if aimed at other religious groups. In my book, I talk at length about the University Wisconsin’s ban on RAs leading Bible study meetings in their own rooms and on their own time. Administrators on the university’s Eau Claire campus argued that if students found out an RA was a Christian, they might not feel comfortable talking to him or her. Meanwhile, following the pattern I’ve seen cases over the country, Christian students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and now at Tufts University in Boston, are being told that they cannot be recognized student groups because their constitutions and beliefs “discriminate” against people who do not share their Christian beliefs. FIRE came to the defense of a Muslim group at Louisiana State University when it faced similar arguments, and, tellingly, the college quickly understood there was something wrong with telling a religious group that it could not exclude people who do not share the group’s faith. I wish campuses understood that the same principle applies to Christians as well.
There are more practical considerations, too. If a professor of “intercultural communications” couldn’t see how offensive this might be to some of his students, he doesn’t sound too terribly qualified to teach the course in the first place. Besides that, what purpose did this particular exercise serve, other than to denigrate a specific set of beliefs? The tuition at FAU is $200 per credit hour for undergrad residents and over $700 per credit hour for undergrad non-residents. That’s a lot of money for a dance course.