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Federal appeals court affirms dismissal of student’s lawsuit against Arizona community college over quiz questions about Islamic terrorism

Professor Nicholas Damask Scottsdale Community College

Photo courtesy of Damask

Professor Nicholas Damask worked with FIRE to defend his academic freedom rights after Scottsdale Community College tried to force him to apologize for quiz questions about Islamic terrorism.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal 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 2020 semester. Nicholas Damask, professor of world politics at SCC, administered a quiz related to a unit on “Islamic Terrorism.” After a student complained that some questions were offensive and “in distaste of Islam,” the college ordered Damask to review the course content with an Islamic religious leader and to issue the student an apology — prewritten for Damask by a marketing administrator. 

FIRE wrote an urgent letter to the college, stating that this 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, committed to establishing a committee on academic freedom. MCCCD Interim Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales apologized for the handling of the situation, and Damask received a $155,000 settlement in exchange for not suing district personnel. 

The fact that a student took offense to or disapproved of a professor’s speech should have no effect on whether the speech is protected.

Victory secured — or so it seemed. The offended student, along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed a lawsuit against Damask and MCCCD asserting Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause claims. The lawsuit argued that classroom speech criticizing a religion is itself a constitutional violation. The district court, siding with free speech and academic freedom, dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim, meaning that even if all the student’s factual allegations were true, they are insufficient to establish a legal cause of action.

The offended student and CAIR appealed, but the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the lawsuit. In an Aug. 10 opinion, the court cited the absence of cases similar to the one here, noting that a professor has never been held to violate the Establishment Clause for making classroom statements that are seemingly unfavorable to a religion. Now, victory has been re-secured. 

FIRE is relieved to see the decision affirmed. The fact that a student took offense to or disapproved of a professor’s speech should have no effect on whether the speech is protected. Had the courts thought differently and held classroom criticisms of religion do violate the Establishment Clause, professors’ free speech and academic freedom rights would be at risk. Fortunately, that is not the case. Professors maintain the right to comment on religion in the classroom, just as FIRE explained in its letter to the college.

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