Would you stomp on a piece of paper with the name Jesus written on it as part of a classroom assignment? Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon student at Florida Atlantic University, had to make this bizarre decision in his Intercultural Communications class. The incident ignited a firestorm of national outrage when Rotela told local news sources, last week, that he was being punished for refusing to complete the assignment.
What happened? How could a professor possibly think this assignment was a good idea?
FAU’s culture war flare-up arose when Rotela’s instructor reportedly assigned his students the following exercise from a textbook:
Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper…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.
After complaining to administrators, Rotela says he was “suspended” from the class.
FAU released a statement over the weekend saying that “no students were forced to take part in the exercise; the instructor told all of the students in the class that they could choose whether or not to participate,” and that “no student has been expelled, suspended or disciplined by the University as a result of any activity that took place during this class.”
But the latter may be true only in a technical sense. Fox News reported that in a letter from an associate dean, Rotela was charged with “an alleged violation of the student code of conduct, acts of verbal, written or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person” and ordered not to return to class.
Thankfully, public exposure seems to have brought FAU to its senses. The university has reportedly apologized and dropped all charges against Rotela.
First, let me be clear: Students do not have a right not to be offended by classroom speech, including assignments. Yet what precisely happened in Rotela’s class matters in determining what rights and principles are at stake. The idea of students at a public institution being required to stomp on the word Jesus evokes the 1943 decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, where the Supreme Court found that students could not be compelled to salute the American flag against their will. In the case, brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses who believed the salute was blasphemy, the Supreme Court staked out a broader moral argument defending the right of private conscience in rousing language. The Court held that students in a free society could not be compelled to engage in an act that amounted to a rejection of their most deeply held beliefs.
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.
Lastly, the incident provides an opportunity to examine universities’ strange understanding of the limits of their power over issues of conscience. As bad as it is to tell students what they cannot say, it is far worse to tell students what they must say. Nonetheless, Missouri State University, for example, punished a social work student because she was unwilling to sign a letter saying she supported gay adoption. Meanwhile, at Rhode Island College, a conservative social work student was told he would have to lobby the government for progressive causes in which he did not believe if he wished to graduate.
“Academic freedom” can be a difficult concept to define. Among various theories, the academic freedom of professors is often emphasized, while the academic freedom of institutions is misunderstood, the academic freedom of departments is forgotten, and the academic freedom of students is ignored. While a student’s right to academic freedom may be comparatively humble, it at minimum should include the right to principled dissent and the right not to be required to publicly reject your beliefs. Let’s hope FAU’s very public embarrassment on this issue leads to some desperately needed recognition of its students’ academic freedom