For an exercise in his course in "intercultural communication," professor Deandre Poole of Florida Atlantic University told students to write the name "JESUS" on a piece of paper, put it on the floor face up and step on it.
He wouldn't, said Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon. The exercise is offensive, he told Mr. Poole. He was going to complain about it to Mr. Poole's superior.
Which Mr. Rotela did. The university promptly suspended ... Mr. Rotela. By complaining about the exercise, Mr. Rotela had violated the student code of conduct, he was told in a "Notice of Charges" sent to him by associate dean Rozalia Williams. Because he confronted Mr. Poole, he might also be charged with intimidation and harassment, Ms. Williams wrote.
Mr. Rotela was suspended from the class and told he could face further punishment, including expulsion.
This didn't happen, because Fox News did a story about the incident. Incredulous and angry emails and phone calls from all over the country flooded in to FAU's administrative offices. It began to dawn on the dimwitted fascists there they'd stepped in it, big time.
Florida Atlantic's first effort at damage control was the standard liberal "we're sorry if anyone was offended" nonapology apology. But the angry phone calls and emails kept coming. So FAU issued a second apology, this time a full grovel:
"We are deeply sorry for any hurt regarding this incident, any insensitivity that may have been seen by the community and the greater community at large," said the dean of students, Corey King. Mr. Rotela would not be punished for complaining about the exercise, and will be permitted to complete the course, with a different instructor.
Ryan Rotela was satisfied, but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott. He wants a detailed report on the incident from the chancellor of the state university system, Frank Brogan.
"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," Mr. Scott said in a letter to Mr. Brogan. "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."
Mr. Scott is right to demand additional information, because the exercise has an ugly precedent.
"If suspected Christians [in 17th century Japan] failed to stomp on an image of Jesus, they were often drowned or crucified," noted conservative blogger Bryan Preston. "The Tokugawa shogunate used such punishments, and the fear they inspired, to crush Christianity and close Japan off to all foreign contact. Thousands were murdered by the state in what amounted to a Christian holocaust."
And it isn't enough for FAU to stop persecuting the innocent. The guilty must be punished. Mr. Poole should be dismissed. So should Ms. Williams, and anyone else who had a hand in the decision to suspend Mr. Rotela.
We should be grateful for Mr. Rotela. He demonstrated that one person with the courage of his convictions can still, sometimes, form a majority.
And we should be appalled by his classmates. For me, what's most distressing about the incident is that just one student complained.
The stomping on Jesus exercise is an entire lesson in the textbook Mr. Poole used. Students at other colleges have been told to do this, too.
The great ally of fascism is indifference, said Pastor Martin Niemoller, who spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps and is known for this quote:
"First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist," he said. "Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
"Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me."
The students who wrote JESUS on a piece of paper, then stomped on it, were guilty of more than just the shameful silence Pastor Niemoller decried.
"We were only following orders," I suspect they'd say if asked why they complied. That excuse was heard a lot at the Nuremberg trials. It didn't fly then. It shouldn't now.
We've paid too little attention to what our children are being taught in college, and by whom. If this incident doesn't prod us into action, then we, too, will be guilty of a shameful silence.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1476.