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FAU Stomps on Academic Freedom Over Jesus Controversy as Scott Fans Fanaticism

| March 28, 2013

The various uses of Jesus Christ, in art or in academia, have on occasion triggered controversies, as when the artist Andres Serrano won the 1987 Southern Center for Contemporary Art's visual arts competition with a photograph he entitled 'Piss Christ,' showing the crucifix submerged, allegedly, in Serrano's urine. The photograph did not cause a controversy for two years, until it was remarked upon by then-Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, who used it in his campaign to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, which had given Serrano a $5,000 grant in 1986. The photograph was last on display last fall at  at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in New York.

The various uses of Jesus Christ, in art or in academia, have on occasion triggered controversies, as when the artist Andrew Serrano won the 1987 Southern Center for Contemporary Art’s visual arts competition with a photograh he entitled ‘Piss Christ,’ showing the crucifix submerged, allegedly, in Serrano’s urine. The photograph did not cause a controversy for two years, until it was remarked upon by then-Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, who used it in his campaign to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, which had given Serrano a $5,000 grant in 1986. The photograph was last on display last fall at at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in New York.

By Susan Clary

Florida Atlantic University Professor Deandre Poole gave the students in his Intercultural Communications class an assignment three weeks ago from their textbook: Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 5th Edition.

Students were asked to write the name “Jesus” in big letters on a piece of paper and place it on the floor in front of them. After a brief period of silence, they were asked to step on it. If students hesitated, they were asked to talk about why they couldn’t do it.

florida voices columnists flaglerlive

The assignment was an opportunity to discuss the role of symbols in our culture. That discussion likely occurred as it has in classrooms all over the country with the same textbook. But one student refused the assignment, complained to a faculty supervisor and went to a West Palm Beach television station.

Ryan Rotela, 21, said he was deeply offended to be asked to “stomp” on something he values so deeply. Rotela, a devout Mormon, said the professor’s actions were inappropriate and unprofessional. The story spread like wildfire. Christians all over the country cried foul.

It didn’t take long for politics to penetrate the story. It was learned Poole is vice chair of the Palm Beach Democrats. Mat Staver, with the conservative Liberty Counsel, spoke out. A lawyer with the Texas-based Liberty Institute ran to Rotela’s rescue.

Proff. Deandre Poole

Proff. Deandre Poole

This week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott penned a letter to State University 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,” he wrote.

To be sure, FAU handled the incident poorly. Rotela claimed he was thrown out and suspended. Schools officials said no one had been expelled, suspended or disciplined. Then it was reported Rotela received a letter from an associate dean accusing him of violating the “speech code” and ordering him not to speak with other students pending a hearing. In the end, the school dropped all charges, apologized and promised not to use the lesson again.

Throughout this ordeal, Professor Poole has been vilified nonstop. He has been accused of religious intolerance, blasphemy and called names for “forcing” his students to stomp on the Lord and Savior. Add some elephants and you would have a three-ring circus.

What seems to be lost in this discussion is the idea of academic freedom. The outrage has been focused on the lesson – mostly from conservative media. Students do not have a right not to be offended by classroom speech or assignments. Universities are the very places students go to be challenged, to defend their ideas, to grow and to become adults. It appears that this was Professor Poole’s goal.

The school was in dangerous territory from a civil rights perspective with their response to Rotela’s refusal. Free speech and due process come to mind. Yet you hear little or no discussion about that. The lesson is under attack and with it, Professor Poole.


In his letter, the governor makes clear that he is using this incident to further his own political agenda. “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.”

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the governor attacked Professor Poole and made the textbook assignment “his lesson.” The governor faces a tough re-election campaign next year with approval ratings hovering at 23 percent, according to a recent Tampa Bay Times poll. As a leader with South Florida Democrats, Professor Poole poses a threat to conservatives. Why would his party matter to anyone otherwise?

In the end, it is the students of FAU who are the losers. Gone is an important lesson on culture. A faculty member’s future hangs in the balance. Discussions on the constitutionality of the school’s “speech code” have been buried. And they have been used in a political game of chess where no one wins.

Formerly a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and Orlando Sentinel, Susan Clary is a freelance writer living in Winter Park. She can be reached by email here.

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11 Responses for “FAU Stomps on Academic Freedom Over Jesus Controversy as Scott Fans Fanaticism”

  1. Will says:

    I recall the Serrano photo controversy rather well. I was on a business committee meeting in NYC but we had some good old boys there, one from Gainesville and one from Birmingham, who took great offense at the fact that Serrano had received NEA funding. The facts, as I learned later, was that the art show was juried and long planned, and the funding for the show was far removed from the awards to the artists. (That’s the short version).

    Much ado about nothing to many of us, but our colleagues’ need to defend the offense to their sensibilities and supposed offense to their religion threw a monkey wrench into an otherwise purposeful meeting.

    I can understand the professor’s intent. Were I in the class I would be uncomfortable in stomping on Jesus, Mohammed, Buddah, or any similar figure. But that’s now. Had I been young, I hope I would have been equally hesitant. But I wouldn’t purport to say that those who stomped were led to disrespect the religion. It was to be a learning experience – the action or inaction – and the discussion to follow.

    Of course, politics and religion are such good bedfellows, as most of us know…..

  2. BeachLvr84 says:

    Ok Susan… I challenge you this:

    Go to work or some other public place tomorrow – in front of at least 20-30 people – and stomp on the rainbow flag or something about gay marriage (or any other primarily liberal agenda). You won’t. I wouldn’t either. It’s a ridiculous “assignment” and if that’s the best this professor could come up with, I’ll gladly send my future kids out of Florida State Universities. But then again… it is bottom of the barrel FAU so what did we all expect?

  3. Stevie says:

    Maybe they should do a “piss Pierre” or a “piss Susan” in a bottle and call it art. Then stomp on it and call the exercise academic freedom. Either way people of faith are still FORCED to endure and to pay into the corrupt public schools system that supports repulsive acts.

    Separate the State from the schools. Jesus will take care of the rest.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Academic freedome thats what you call this far far left bigotry.

  5. Sherry Epley says:

    This controvercy makes the teacher’s point exactly. . . the power of symbols. I am certain that if the teacher had asked everyone to step on an image of Buddha, there would have been no hesitation, much less a problem. Better ” Public” schools are our country’s future. . . quite simply because there is no religious or profit making motive.Think hard about this. . . do we really want our teachers walking on religious egg shells and answering to stockholders?

    Let’s consider the first amendment, the separation of church and state:
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    Scott, as a representative of the “state”, should not have entered into this situation, merely because of the offence taken by a believer in Jesus.

  6. Bunnell resident says:

    I reaaly don’t think Jesus himself would be offended. After all, stepping on his name is nothing compared to hanging him on a cross. I bet that University would have fired its professor if he asked the students to write Mohammed on a piece of paper and stomp on his name. This is a nonstory except for the fact that higher educational institutions in this country seem to be so hostile towards Christianity. Tolerance toward Islam is considered by them to be a virtue, respect for Christianity somehow makes one intolerant!

  7. NortonSmitty says:

    Should we really be discussing this on Easter weekend, everybody’s second favorite zombie holiday?

  8. Rob F says:

    Had it been Mohammed or Buddha or gay marriage, it would have immediately been designated a hate crime, but since it was Jesus, no harm intended.

  9. Outsider says:

    Funny, the stories I read on the event state that the student, a devout Mormon, refused to participate in the “lesson.” After complaining to the “professor’s” supervisor, the student learned he had been suspended from the class. I see none of this in the above article.

  10. Xaddgx says:

    “Students do not have a right not to be offended by classroom speech or assignments.”
    Wow, what a condescending statement. If THIS is what constitutes as a lesson, essentially trying to make people step on their beliefs in a matter of seconds, then screw the education system as a whole.

    Oh, and classroom speech? Do you even know the kind of speech that can go on in classrooms? Have you ever heard of students exploiting “substitute teachers”? Take the adult who knows what they’re doing out of the room, replace it with a clueless drone, and the real person comes out of the student. People will say and do the damnedest things when not supervised by someone who knows what they are doing. So yeah, I am allowed some damn rights to be offended in a classroom, especially when I am being directly told to crush my beliefs under my shoe. Some people don’t want to speak their beliefs, you know. There is a complete difference between learning relevant things and bringing religion into the class for no plausible reason other than to potentially ridicule those who think differently.

    This is coming from an atheist, by the way. Maybe you should go learn some tolerance sometime.

  11. ryan says:

    More importantly in college, for what it costs, accurate info. is what people in college are paying for and entitled to , not overopinionated, under factual, or false info. If you are a teacher, teach the facts no matter what, or go find another job.

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