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Déjà vu: San Francisco State University threatens academic freedom, investigates professor for showing Prophet Muhammad image in history class

San Francisco State University entrance sign

Kit Leong /

San Francisco State University is investigating history professor Maziar Behrooz for showing a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad while teaching a lesson on the history of the Islamic world last fall. A student reportedly “strongly objected” and filed a complaint with the university.

This investigation comes just months after Minnesota’s Hamline University faced a firestorm for not renewing the contract of instructor Erika Lòpez-Prater because she displayed medieval artwork depicting the Prophet Muhammad in her art history course. 

Unfortunately, ‌SFSU administrators haven’t learned anything from Hamline’s mistakes. Just like with Hamline, SFSU is violating a professor’s academic freedom rights because some took offense to pedagogically relevant course content. 

Person browsing art gallery with blank paintings

FIRE calls on Hamline University to reinstate art history instructor dismissed for showing medieval depiction of Muhammad


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FIRE wrote SFSU today urging the university to end its investigation and reaffirm that it will protect faculty academic freedom rights.

As a public institution, SFSU is bound by the First Amendment to respect faculty’s academic freedom rights. This includes the right to teach material relevant to their classes without facing sanction. 

Here, Behrooz displayed a historical image depicting the Islamic prophet in a class session on the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700. Behrooz even reportedly explained to administrators that the type of drawing he showed can be bought at markets near holy shrines in Tehran, where Behrooz was born. But after a student complained in the fall, the institution chose to launch an investigation in March — months later.

As we told SFSU, the university cannot investigate an instructor, which implies the potential of punishment,  for displaying pedagogically relevant material in their classroom, regardless of whether it offends some, many, or most students:

Academic freedom necessitates that faculty members receive substantial breathing room to determine how to approach subjects and materials relevant to their courses, rather than allowing administrators, students, legislators, or outside authorities to unduly influence those decisions. Pedagogically relevant material may include words, concepts, subjects, or discussions that some, many, or even most students find upsetting or uncomfortable, including displaying materials that may offend those who practice a certain religion. Faculty must be free of institutional restraints in attempting to confront and examine complex issues, as was Behrooz in teaching Islamic history.

Even if SFSU doesn’t ultimately formally punish Behrooz, investigation of clearly constitutionally protected speech can itself violate the First Amendment. The question is not whether the university formally punishes someone for their protected speech, but instead whether the institution’s actions will chill future speech. SFSU’s investigation almost certainly will.

SFSU’s investigation of Behrooz is especially egregious given that administrators are almost certainly aware of Hamline’s missteps, which made national news. In that case, Lòpez-Prater sued the university, faculty voted 71-12 urging the university president to step down, and the president is now retiring.

Given this context, SFSU should understand it’s violating Behrooz’s First Amendment rights. But it’s choosing to do so anyway. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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