Federal appeals court upholds dismissal of student’s lawsuit against Arizona community college over Islamic terrorism issues

Professor Nicholas Damask worked with FIRE to defend his academic freedom rights after Scottsdale Community College tried to force him to apologize over questions about Islamic terrorism. (Photo courtesy of Damascus)

by Haley Gluhanich

August 16, 2022

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal by a district court of a lawsuit involving a Scottsdale Community College student who asserted a constitutional right to be free from messages “disapproving” of his religion.

Rewind to the spring semester 2020. Nicholas Damask, professor of global politics at CSC, administered a unit-linked quiz on “Islamic terrorism.” After a student complained that some questions were offensive and “hateful to Islam,” the university ordered Damask to review course content with an Islamic religious leader and apologize to the student – written in advance for Damask by a marketing administrator.

fire wrote an urgent letter in college, stating that it violated Damask’s rights to free speech and academic freedom. As a result, the Maricopa County Community College District, of which SCC is a part, has committed to creating an Academic Freedom Committee. MCCCD Acting Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales apologized for situation management, and Damask received a $155,000 settlement in exchange for not suing district personnel.

The fact that a student has offended or disapproved of a professor’s speech should not affect whether the speech is protected.

Victory assured – or so it seemed. The offended student, along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed a court case against Damask and MCCCD claiming Establishment clause and free exercise clause complaints. The lawsuit argued that classroom speech criticizing a religion is itself a constitutional violation. The District Court, supporter of free speech and academic freedom, fired the trial for failure to declare a claimmeaning that even if all of the student’s factual allegations were true, they are insufficient to establish a legal cause of action.

The offended student and the CAIR appealed, but the Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit. In an Aug. 10 opinion, the court cited the absence of cases similar to this one, noting that a professor has never been found to have breached the Establishment Clause for making seemingly unfavorable statements in class. to a religion. Now the victory is assured again.

FIRE is relieved to see the decision upheld. The fact that a student has offended or disapproved of a professor’s speech should not affect whether the speech is protected. If the courts had thought differently and held critiques of religion in the classroom do would violate the Establishment Clause, the free speech and academic freedom rights of professors would be threatened. Fortunately, this is not the case. Teachers retain the right to comment on religion in class, just as FIRE explained in its letter to the college.

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