On 27 March 2017, TheCollegeFix.com reported that a student at Rollins College in Florida had been suspended for challenging a Muslim professor’s purportedly “anti-Christian” rhetoric:

Twenty-year-old Marshall Polston, a sophomore at the private, Florida-based four-year college, said that the professor of his Middle Eastern Humanities class also told students that Jesus’ disciples did not believe he was God … Polston, in a message to The College Fix on Saturday, said he stands behind his assertions in the Post article. He said he is upset he was suspended and has hired an attorney.

Polston claims the situation began after he challenged [Professor Areej Zufari’s] assertions about Jesus and his disciples. Polston said this challenge led Zufari to file a complaint with a campus dean, claiming he made her feel “unsafe.”

Next, Polston received a 52 percent on a major essay … in another day during the course, Zufari led a discussion about the application of Sharia Law. Polston claims that during this discussion, a male Muslim student said gays and adulterers should be beheaded under Sharia Law … Zufari, for her part, posted on Facebook to the ACLU of Florida, complaining about an unnamed student that is “making my life hell this semester. This one is spewing hatred at me, de-railing class, and just sent me a hateful email threatening me…I want to know if there is a way to hold the individual responsible for his harassment and hate speech. Any ideas? Thank you!”

The site went on to state that Rollins College had previously acted “unfavorably” toward Christian students, citing incidents in 2013 in which a Christian group was reportedly booted from campus, and students were prohibited from holding private Bible studies in dorms.

The March 2017 controversy involved a student named Marshall Polston (who has worked as a political radio show host and as a staffer for a Republican state representative) and Rollins professor Areej Zufari, who Polston suggested sanctioned his grades because he “disagreed” with her course material. 

TheCollegeFix.com linked to an uploaded copy of a 24 March 2017 letter confirming Polston’s suspension, but the only reason provided in the document for the suspension was a determination that his actions (which were unspecified) were disruptive and jeopardized the safety of the school:

Much of this reporting was derived from a 25 March 2017 Central Florida Post blog post, which presented Polston’s version of events and asserted that Rollins College failed to provide comment:

Marshall Polston confirmed to the Central Florida Post that Professor Areeje Zufari, who teaches a “Muslim Humanities” course at Rollins, has made outlandish claims against him and even filed a false police report.

Early on in the class, Polston said he realized the professor was harboring Anti-Christian beliefs, demonstrated by the professor’s assertion that the crucifixion of Jesus was a hoax and that his disciples did not believe he was God.

Whether religious or not, I believe even those with limited knowledge of Christianity can agree that according to the text, Jesus was crucified and his followers did believe he was divine… that he was “God.” Regardless, to assert the contrary as academic fact is not supported by the evidence.

However, the Orlando Sentinel provided a different account of the dispute:

A Rollins College student who has accused his Muslim professor of religious discrimination has been clashing with his teacher since the semester started, court records show.

Areej Zufari, the professor, was so concerned about the behavior of Marshall Polston, 20, that she filed a “protection against stalking” request against him on [24 March 2017] in Orange Circuit Court. Rollins has temporarily suspended Polston from school.

The injunction request includes a long email that Polston, a Christian, sent to the professor after he received a failing grade on an essay in the Middle Eastern humanities class.

“Quite frankly the grade you assigned to me exposes your true agenda which is to silence me in class.” the email said. “You’re one of the most incompetent professors I have ever seen in my life.”

The 24 March 2017 injunction included relevant e-mails sent by Polston to Zufari, and overall appeared to contradict Polston’s widely-repeated claims the suspension pertained solely to ideological differences between the student and professor:

The paper reported that on 9 March 2017, Polston e-mailed Zufari about his poor grade and accused her of carrying out what he called a “blitzkrieg” against him. Zufari was reportedly so concerned by his behavior that she canceled class:

They struck up a conversation — about his email, his dispute with Zufari, different religions — and he mentioned guns several times, she said.

“At no point did he threaten anyone openly, but I was very uncomfortable by his continued reference to guns, generalized categories of people by religion and his obvious nervousness and disdain for the professor,” she wrote to Miller on March 9.

The Orlando Sentinel described the controversy as “fake news” and chided poorly-researched blog posts “parroting” Polston’s claims of discrimination:

Court records — generated after the professor filed a request for “protection against stalking” from the student — also showed the school generally considered the student to be a discipline problem and that administrators had repeatedly spoken to him about his behavior.

But to get that full story, [Sentinel reporter Gabrielle] Russon had to do two things:

1. Research.

2. Want to tell all sides of the story.

That was too much for many of the websites. And thanks to social media, their unproven accusations spread like wildfire …

Welcome to the wide world of fake news.

Rollins College administrators denied that Polston, or any student, could be suspended merely over a simple disagreement with a professor. The institution declined to discuss the reasons for which Polston was suspended due to privacy concerns. On 30 March 2017, Polston was reinstated. A reinstatement letter from Rollins maintained Polston declined to attend a hearing following his suspension, and added that Polston was found to be “aggressive, disrespectful, and at times, vulgar in multiple verbal and electronic communications with faculty, staff and students”:

In response to an inquiry from Snopes.com, Rollins College provided the following statement on 30 March 2017:

Rollins College strictly adheres to federal laws and our own institutional policies and procedures when reviewing disciplinary matters on campus. Our practice is to not comment on such issues, but the student’s decision to make this matter public has forced us to set the record straight. The student’s claim that a classroom discussion with his professor regarding religious differences caused disciplinary actions to be taken are simply untrue.

Rollins College has a legacy of being welcoming and respectful of all religious and cultural beliefs. As an institution of higher education, we have consistently demonstrated that we value and encourage diversity of opinions and respectful discourse. The student’s public tactics and statements have grossly misrepresented his experience, the daily practices of this college, and the teaching methods of a professor. It is unfortunate that so many have been so quick to believe something so far removed from our reputation and core principles.

We have reached out to Polston for comment.

Sources:

Engels, Jacob.   “Rollins College Suspends Student After He Challenged Radical Muslim Hate Speech.”
    Central Florida Post.   25 March 2017.

Maxwell, Scott.   “Commentary: Rollins College Falls Prey To Fake-News Hysteria.”
    Orlando Sentinel.   29 March 2017.

Nardi, William.   “Christian Student Suspended After Challenging Muslim Prof’s Claim That Jesus Wasn’t Crucified.”
    The College Fix.   27 March 2017.

Russon, Gabrielle.   “Rollins Student, Professor Clashed For Weeks In Religion Class.”
    <Orlando Sentinel.   28 March 2017.

Associated Press.   “Florida Student Suspended For Treatment Of Muslim Professor.”
    29 March 2017.

Rollins College.   “Cornwell: ‘As An Institution Of Higher Learning We Value The Exploration Of A Broad Diversity Of Beliefs, Identities, Ideas, Backgrounds And Faith Traditions, And Welcome Those Who Manifest Them In Our Community.'”
    28 March 2017.