Florida Atlantic ‘Jesus Stomp’ Case: A Screwup from Start to Finish

By on April 1, 2013

I hope I am wrong, but bald-faced institutional self-interest is the only force I can think of that explains the weird series of decisions that Florida Atlantic University (FAU) has made since student Ryan Rotela publicly complained about being made to stomp on the word "Jesus" in his Intercultural Communications class. Let’s take a look at why that is:

1. FAU maintains a speech code that can be used to punish protected speech.

We have already written to Florida Governor Rick Scott about the speech codes prevalent at FAU and other Florida public colleges, but the FAU policy at issue in this case, which is classified by FIRE as being too easily abused to silence protected speech, really is problematic. It bans "[a]cts of 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." Verbal abuse? Is that just yelling at someone? Written abuse? What, like a mean email? And who decides what is abuse and what are mere insults or disagreements? There is far too much leeway to misuse a rule like this, and FAU should have known better than to maintain such a policy. 

2. Any way you slice it, FAU mishandled the charge against Ryan Rotela. 

When the story first hit the press, it appeared that Rotela was being punished under FAU’s speech code for complaining to his professor about the assignment to write the word "Jesus" on a piece of paper and then step on it. After the nature of the assignment went public and FAU began to receive criticism, FAU dropped the charges against Rotela only days later. Then, today, instructor Deandre Poole spoke out in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, which presented Poole’s side of the story: 

Poole said that, as best he could tell, only one student in the course had an objection. That student — whom Poole did not name in the interview, but who has come forward in local news reports saying he was suspended for objecting to the exercise — refused to participate and then said repeatedly, Poole said, "How dare you disrespect someone’s religion?"

After class, the student came up to him, and made that statement again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that "he wanted to hit me." While the student did not do so, Poole said he was alarmed and notified campus security and filed a report on the student. 

Now, obviously, both sides’ stories need to be taken with a grain of salt, considering what’s at stake those involved and the cultural freight the situation is carrying. Rotela feels as though he was told to insult the religious figure he worships. Poole has been suspended from teaching for "safety reasons" (more on that in a bit), and his livelihood is therefore jeopardized. And we’re unlikely to ever know for sure what actually happened in the encounter between Rotela and Poole. But there is one party that we can be virtually certain did the wrong thing, and that party is FAU. 

  • If Rotela’s story is accurate, FAU charged him with a campus crime merely for vehemently complaining about a classroom assignment. For FAU to do so would be indefensible.
  • If Poole’s story is accurate, but FAU did not believe that Rotela’s conduct constituted a true threat, FAU should not have charged Rotela with threatening anyone. To do so would be indefensible.
  • If Poole’s story is accurate, and if FAU really believed that Rotela was making a true threat to hit Poole, FAU should not have dropped the threat charge against Rotela simply for public relations reasons. To do so would be indefensible. 

FAU’s mishandling of the threat charge against Rotela can’t be defended. The only real dispute is over which indefensible action FAU took.

3. FAU’s "administrative leave" for Poole is awfully suspect.

CBS 4 in Miami reported late last week that Deandre Poole had been placed on "administrative leave" from teaching at FAU for "safety reasons." Inside Higher Ed‘s article further reported that he was put on paid leave because Poole’s safety (not from Rotela but from outside threats) could not be assured on campus, and that "[t]he university said that Poole will not be on campus, ‘to prevent further disruption to the day-to-day operations’ of the institution." 

There’s no indication of how Poole feels about being unable to teach, but most professors don’t appreciate being banned from class, and it’s disruptive for the students as well. If FAU is truly motivated by concerns for Poole’s safety, the right course of action would be to work hard to make sure that the FAU campus is safe for him and to do it as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the university risks giving a "heckler’s veto" to any off-campus person who doesn’t like what a professor says on campus and is willing to make threats, real or fake, to get the college to silence that professor. Time will tell whether the "leave" is really for Poole’s benefit or for FAU’s.

4. The university’s promise that the exercise will not be used again raises academic freedom concerns.

Todd Starnes of Fox News reported on the details of the textbook exercise that started the commotion:

"Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper," the lesson reads. "Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture."

So what does "instruct" mean? Ordinarily, you can’t ignore an "instruction" from your teacher without it affecting your grade, so you can see why a student would think this was mandatory. Inside Higher Ed reported, "Poole wants people to know that he never told anyone to ‘stomp on Jesus,’ to quote the headline widely used in articles criticizing him. He said he asked people to step on the piece of paper." But it’s not clear why or how Rotela would know that this instruction, unlike most in a class, was optional. Because of the nature of this assignment, it was perhaps inevitable that an issue like this would arise, bringing with it shades of the forced salute to the American flag at issue in the famous Supreme Court case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943).

Yet administrators managed to mess this up too. A statement from FAU promised that "[b]ased on the offensive nature of the exercise, we will not use it again and have issued an apology to the community. It was insensitive and unacceptable. We continue to apologize to all the people who were offended and deeply regret this situation has occurred." 

In response, FAU’s faculty union raised a legitimate concern about academic freedom in the wake of the university’s statement. A statement from the union said: "When the university administration unilaterally claims that such an assignment will not be taught again without the consultation of the faculty member involved as well as the faculty at large, they shred the principles of academic freedom that legitimate the existence of the university and guide genuine scholarly inquiry."

This is a good point, and one worth remembering. Curriculum is properly the province of the faculty, not the administration. It is the faculty who are supposed to be the experts on the subject matter and know best how to teach it. Having administrators dictate specifically how professors can and cannot teach their classes puts a straitjacket on academic freedom. 

Some limits are appropriate, of course. A professor can be prevented from doing things that are illegal in class even if they would help in the teaching process. A professor can’t make a student lobby for causes he does not believe in, give credit for sending a letter to the President opposing the war in Iraq but not supporting it, or, as in Barnette, require students to salute the flag. Contrastingly, they certainly do have the right to have students read sections of the Koran, show material in class to which students might object, and otherwise challenge students. But it is a terrible idea for administrators to go through a textbook and cross out the stuff they don’t like, especially when their dislike of various exercises stems from the bad PR those exercises may engender. 

The university’s repeated attempts to get on the right side of the politics of the issue has instead simply added to the litany of problems it has caused. Here’s hoping for the day when universities discover that sticking to your principles is the best form of PR.

Schools: Florida Atlantic University