The uproar began when Professor Nicholas Damask, who chairs the political science department at Scottsdale Community College (SCC) and teaches a module called ‘Islamic Terrorism’, included questions on a quiz about how terrorism is justified by some in the Islamic faith – and about where in Islamic doctrine and law they take these justifications from.
The quiz prompted a complaint from one student, who felt the questions were “in distaste of Islam” and who was unconvinced by Damask’s explanation that they were relevant “to the study of the religious justifications of terrorists.” Other offended students soon aired their own complaints online.
The college immediately sided with the students, with President Chris Haines declaring in an Instagram post that the questions were “inappropriate” and not reflective of the “inclusive nature” of the institution. Haines even promised that Damask “will be apologizing” to offended individuals, and said the questions would be “permanently removed” from future quizzes.
The knee-jerk reaction to censor “insensitivities” in political content didn’t go exactly as planned, however, and Damask did not apologize. Instead, the college was sent a legal warning by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), cautioning that its actions were “flatly inconsistent” with its First Amendment obligations.
Damask was also warned that “a leader in the Islamic faith” would need to vet his course content in future to ensure that it was “appropriate,” FIRE program officer Katlyn Patton said in the letter, adding that he came away from phone calls with college higher-ups “feeling that his job security was in jeopardy.”
Censoring Damask, removing his content and forcing him into an apology would have “an impermissible chilling effect on faculty expression and teaching,” the organization said, noting that the principle of free speech “does not exist to protect only non-controversial expression.”
FIRE’s letter warned that SCC not only violated the First Amendment but also Arizona state law, which protects the faculty against compelled public expression of “a particular view.”
The fact that students “may experience discomfort” in the course of their studies “should have no bearing on a professor’s right” to select relevant materials as they see fit, Patton wrote.
FIRE’s later had the desired effect and SCC interim Chancellor Steven Gonzales issued an apology on Monday for its “uneven” handling of the matter, and for a “lack of full consideration” of Damask’s rights. Gonzales also promised an “immediate independent investigation” into its handling of the incident and the creation of a new “Committee on Academic Freedom.”
The happy ending for Damask is in stark contrast to the outcomes for many other professors who have had their academic freedom curtailed to spare the feelings of offended students and over-reactive college administrations in recent years.
Last year, a professor was fired by the University of Louisville for expressing the view that young children may not be old enough to be sure they are transgender, while in 2015 a University of Illinois professor got the sack for posting angry anti-Israel tweets during the summer assault in Gaza.