Here's a bizarre story: Administrators at Rollins College in Florida suspended a conservative Christian student and banished him from campus after one of his professors—Areeje Zufari—reported that he was making her feel unsafe.
But according to the student, Marshall Polston, he was actually punished for disagreeing with the professor, and for voicing concerns about deeply offensive statements made by a classmate. This classmate, an unnamed male Muslim student, reportedly said that under shariah law, beheading was the appropriate punishment for gays and adulterers.
"It took a few seconds for me to realize that he actually said that, especially after what this community has faced with the tragic loss of life at Pulse," Polston told The Central Florida Post.
This student's comments understandably unnerved several members of Zufari's Middle Eastern Humanities class. Someone even notified the FBI.
Polston took his concerns to Zufari, who seemed unfazed by the comments.
Afterward, Polston was called to the dean of safety's office and informed of his suspension.
"In my judgment, your actions have constituted a threat of disruption within the operations of the college and jeopardize the safety and well-being of members of the College community and yourself," wrote the dean.
Officials ordered Polston to have no further contact with Zufari. The notice of suspension also prohibits Polston from contacting a named female student, for reasons unknown. (As far as I can tell, this named female student is not the student who made the comments about shariah law in class, since her gender is wrong.) Polston could not immediately be reached for comment.
Polston's feud with Zufari predates the shariah law episode. They clashed during a previous class period: Zufari purportedly asserted that Jesus was never crucified and his followers didn't believe he was a god. Polston challenged her, and then received a failing grade on an essay. When he inquired about the grade, Zufari retaliated by cancelling classes and reporting Polston to the dean for making her feel unsafe, according to Polston's account.
The discussion of shariah law took place at subsequent class meeting.
"Our university should be a place where free-speech flashes and ideas can be spoken of without punishment or fear of retribution," Polston told The College Fix. "In my case it was the total opposite… I came forward with the story because I know so many other students like me suffer under today's liberal academic elite."
In the story, 20-year-old Polston notes that he has traveled the Middle East (pictures from his Facebook profile support this) and even given a lecture at Salahaddin University. He has hired a lawyer and plans to contest the suspension.
He has already been accused of violating its terms. According to a campus safety report obtained by The College Fix:
"Student ______ stated to me that she looked out the back glass door of the classroom and saw Mr. Polston staring into the room. He briefly stopped then proceeded on his way. Campus safety was immediately notified and responded at 19:36 hours. A search was conducted but Mr. Polston was not found. Ms. Zufari's students were upset and did not feel comfortable being in the class. Ms. Zufari dismissed her class early at 20:07 hours."
Polston, however, was able to supply video evidence that he was at a restaurant 30 minutes away at the time.
Neither Rollins College nor Professor Zufari responded to a request for comment.
A couple points bear emphasis.
First, several conservative news outlets evidently thought the headline here was Professor Says Stuff We Don't Like About Jesus. But Zufari's comments, offensive though they might be to Christians, are hardly the most outrageous aspect of this story. Indeed, a university classroom is a perfect place to have a discussion about an historical figure, especially given that Zufari and Polston both seem to possess a certain level of expertise regarding the intersections of their respective religions, and regarding Middle Eastern history.
That said, it was of course wrong for Zufari to fail Polston on the basis of his disagreement with her, if that is indeed what happened.
The available reporting on the pro-shariah law student's comments leaves much to be desired. It's not completely clear whether he was merely stating the shariah law position on adulterers and gay people, or endorsing it. The reaction from other students—to call the FBI—suggests the latter, but this would not be the first time people overreacted to safety concerns at a university setting.
The purpose of a liberal arts college like Rollins is to teach and promote classically liberal Enlightenment values. Extremist interpretations of shariah law—including calls to violence against gays and adulterers—obviously violate liberal principles. Students who espouse such illiberal views should be challenged by other students, and by their professors. Rollins should not provide intellectual shelter to an Islamic extremist, if that's what's happening here.
Alas, it seems like Rollins has gone the way of so many other campuses. When students, professors, and administrators hear someone say something they don't like, they are more likely to report the speaker to the authorities than engage him or her in a productive dialogue. Everything that offends is a safety risk, or harassment violation. And standing up for the principle of free speech is retaliation. What a mess.
Stay tuned for updates.