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Professor’s rhetoric fuels debate over free speech vs. safe spaces at UCF

By Adam Manno, For Central Florida Focus , On 30 August 2017, Read Original
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Reporter’s note (08/16/2017): This article has been edited to include details about the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville over the weekend. The article was originally published on Aug. 15, 2017.

Among free speech lawns and safe zone stickers at UCF, a communications professor’s continued presence raises concerns about student safety in a time of increased xenophobia and campus tensions.

Jonathan Matusitz has taught classes such as “Terrorism and Communication” at the Nicholson School of Communication since 2006.

A professor’s divisive words

A YouTube video uploaded in 2013 to an account operated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations shows Matusitz denouncing Islam in a panel discussion.

“When my colleagues tell me that Islam is a religion of peace, I tell them it’s a religion of pieces – piece of body over here, piece of body over there,” Matusitz says in the video.

“Islam is the problem,” Matusitz continues before citing fears that Germany will become a Muslim-majority state in the future. “In the United States, we do have cultural Muslims. Many Muslims who do not want to hurt us. Again, they’re not the problem, but they’re not the solution either.”

He later points to himself and declares, “We are the solution.”

Matusitz, who has been written about by other UCF media outlets, stands by every word. He reiterated his beliefs in a phone interview with the Focus.

“I still believe, absolutely that Islam is a dangerous doctrine,” Matusitz told the Focusin a phone interview conducted in January. “If a Muslim says that the objective of their religion is not to establish a caliphate or conquer the world, this person is not reading the Quran or being a true Muslim.”

President Trump, aftermath of the Pulse tragedy stoke Islamophobia in Orlando and across the country

Last June’s Pulse shooting claimed 49 lives and sparked vigils in solidarity with Orlando across the country. But a more insidious and less talked-about threat has grown in the wake of that tragedy.

Last July, a poll conducted by the Orlando Sentinel showed that 21 percent of respondents claimed their views on Muslims had become more negative after Pulse. In September, the mosque where the family of Pulse gunman Omar Mateen prayed was set ablaze. After the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded more than 900 nationwide complaints of harassment and intimidation in the 10 days following the election.

“Islamophobia is up based on the research at CAIR-Florida,” said Rasha Mubarak (’08), a regional coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It’s been its highest since November 2015, which includes the time post-San Bernadino and now post-Pulse.”

At the same time, the Muslim population in Central Florida continues to grow. A 2012 religion census conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies found that Islam gained 25,000 worshipers in the Orlando metropolitan area since 2000, second in gains only to Roman Catholicism.

This growth is met with continuing efforts by the Trump administration to fulfill his campaign promise of a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

After several legal stays and judicial appeals against an initial order, most of Executive Order 13780 was given the green light by the Supreme Court in June. The case is awaiting formal trial this fall. Meanwhile, the debate between the free exchange of ideas versus a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech is front and center in discussions surrounding Matusitz at UCF.

UCF stands by Matusitz

On August 1, Nicholson announced that Matusitz won a Teaching Incentive Program (TIP) award. The recognition comes with a $5,000 raise, to be presumably added to the $70,228 salary listed by the Orlando Business Journal in 2014 based on information from the office of Gov. Rick Scott. According to the press release, winners must show “continuing commitment to instruction, class size, innovation and creativity in instruction.”

Robert Littlefield, the director of the Nicholson School of Communication and Matusitz’s boss, praised Matusitz and another TIP winner for their “willingness to mentor undergraduate and graduate students with their research efforts.”

“Students benefit from a marketplace of ideas,” Littlefield told the Focus regarding Matusitz’ role on the faculty roster. “To that extent, students need to be aware and understand the variety of opinions that make up our world.”

Still, Littlefield said that his time working with Muslim students over the years has enriched his perspective. He called for Matusitz to consider his influence when speaking outside of the classroom.

“He carries with him the credibility that he is a UCF professor,” Littlefield said. “It’s important with him that when he is a representative of the university that he carries with him the values of the university. This university is a diversity university.”

Mubarak agrees with Littlefield and cites concerns over Matusitz’s previous involvement with ACT! for America – an organization labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. On March 28, Mubarak posted a video on Instagram of a police officer escorting her out of a Brevard County school board meeting. In the caption, she said that a member of ACT! for America “wagged his finger, and called me a terrorist” after she spoke out against removing passages about Islam from world history textbook.

Matusitz told the Focus he would speak for ACT! for America “in a heartbeat.”

“I think there’s a responsibility that comes with being an academic,” Mubarak said. “I think it’s just problematic that our tax dollars are going to a professor that had a hate group on his résumé.”

In 2013, the university told the Orlando Sentinel that they had no plans of conducting a review of Matusitz’s courses. Grant Heston, a UCF spokesperson, told the newspaper that Matusitz out-of-class views are “his right.”

Muslim students respond to Matusitz’s presence on campus

Though Matusitz is not immediately known to most students, those who unearth his videos online find plenty to talk about.

Maryam Arshad, a political science senior at UCF, expressed discomfort with some of his claims. “The way he refers to Muslims as ‘them’ and ‘their,’ essentially otherizing Muslims and implying that they’re not really Americans makes me feel like I’m less human or less trustworthy because I’m a Muslim, as though that’s all there is to me,” Arshad, 22, said.

Komysha Hassan, a member of the Muslim Student Association at UCF, said that the student organization is well aware of Matusitz and his views.

“In 2013, a previous MSA board made an informal request for UCF to review the content of professor Matusitz’s courses given his clear partisanship on the issue,” Hassan said. “However, nothing was done about it to our knowledge.”

Littlefield, who joined the department last year and was not involved in the hiring of Matusitz, said he is relieved that Matusitz’s ideas are at least on display.

“While I very much disagree, we do live in the U.S.,” Littlefield said. “We are going to understand that people have radically different points of view, and we have to allow them to be expressed. I’d rather know and be able to not accept than not know and not be able to accept.”

The Focus was unable to find any evidence that Matusitz brings the sentiments expressed in the video into the classroom.

“UCF has a creed, and part of that creed is that all viewpoints should be allowed, so UCF should stand by me indeed,” Matusitz said.

Matusitz feels emboldened by his critics. He said his book sales and speaking invitations went up after every controversy. This points to fears that speaking and writing about people like Matusitz heighten his profile.

“The more CAIR attacked me, the more popular and visible I became,” Matusitz said. “Imagine that one day I run for office, all I would need to succeed is CAIR’s public criticism in the media.”

Nationwide campus tensions raise concerns

American universities are in a tough spot. Tensions on various campuses have led to a fierce debate between the importance of safe spaces versus unchecked free speech.

In February, the University of California, Berkeley canceled speech by conservative journalist Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters started fires and broke windows, leaving $100,000 in damage and six people injured. In April, conservative author Ann Coulter ended up not speaking at the same school after losing support from administration officials worried about further unrest. Last year, UCF canceled a speech by Milo Yiannopolous citing similar concerns.

At the same time, a wave of violent acts ranging from deportation task forces at UCF and University of Texas at Arlingtonnooses hung at American Universityand the fatal stabbing of a Richard Collins III, a black student from Bowie State University, have added to the murky portrait of campus safety in the 21st century.

Over the weekend, a march by torch-wielding white supremacists protesting the removal of a confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia was preceded by a similar march on the campus of the University of Virginia. Saturday’s march to the newly-renamed Emancipation Park resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer in what Attorney General Jeff Sessions called an act of “domestic terrorism.” However, the Friday evening on-campus clash led to counter-protester and university librarian Tyler Magill suffering from a stroke on Tuesday that doctors say was caused by physical trauma. Magill’s friends claim he was hit in the neck by a torch.

Social media has given students a platform in which to engage on issues of social justice. Instant online community-building online contributes to a sense that established institutions, such as universities, are not catching up to a shifting center of acceptable rhetoric and responsibility.

Last August, a letter by the University of Chicago dean of students greeted the incoming class of 2020 by affirming a commitment to “academic freedom.” The letter went on to call safe spaces a way to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

A month later, Inside Higher Ed reported that 150 University of Chicago faculty members published an open letter in the student newspaper recalling the “gay, civil rights and feminist efforts of the mid-20th century.” The professors argued that not even hearing out the idea of trigger warnings was “an affront to the basic principles of liberal education.”

What to do?

In a time of increased uneasiness in the Muslim-American community, the university finds itself at a similar crossroads: should it stand by its unyielding commitment to all viewpoints, or to the comfort and sensitivities of some of its students?

“I think [his points are] ignorant and harmful,” said Sadman Chowdhury, former religious affairs director for the Muslim Student Association at UCF. “Everybody had freedom of speech in this country, but I don’t think it is helpful to spread falsehoods.”

Hassan sees it as “absolutely critical” to maintain a diverse set of views on campus.

“I welcome that diversity of thought, even if it were challenging or controversial,” she said. “The problem … is that he provides falsehoods as fact and presents ideologically-laden opinions as impartial statements.”

Arshad has mixed feelings toward Matusitz’s presence on campus.

“I feel inclined to say that Dr. Matusitz should ultimately be afforded the benefit of speaking his mind outside of the classroom,” Arshad said. “But, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line because I don’t know if other students feel as uncomfortable and unsafe knowing that someone with such hateful views conducts classes full of impressionable minds.”

A Muslim student who signed up for “Terrorism and Communication” this fall says he or she expects a lot of writing in Matusitz’s class. The student also feels uneasy over what to contribute to class discussion.

“To be honest,” the student said, “I’m nervous to write anything about Islam or even speak about religion.”

Director Littlefield expressed sympathy for this position during his interview with the Focus.

“Students self-censor,” he said. “They’ll choose to say something neutral or that the professor wants to hear. The ideological thing clearly puts pressure on students, and that’s not healthy, I think.”

The professor taught one section of his “Terrorism and Communication” class on the Sanford/Lake Mary regional campus during the summer 2017 semester.

“Decisions made for faculty to teach at regional campus locations are based upon need,” said UCF spokeswoman Christine Dellert.


After many attempts, the Focus was not able to interview a student who has previously taken a class taught by professor Jonathan Matusitz. In the fall, Matusitz will teach two classes at UCF’s main campus.

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