A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against Scottsdale Community College and one of its professors for teaching material that a student said condemned Islam.
The student, Mohamed Sabra, and the Arizona chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations filed the lawsuit, asking that SCC and professor Nicholas Damask stop teaching the materials in question until they “do not have the primary effect of disapproving of Islam.”
In a lawsuit filed in June, attorneys for Sabra said he answered quiz questions based on how Muslims practice their religion, but the answers were marked as incorrect. Sabra was forced to decide whether to disavow his religion or be punished by getting the answers wrong on the quiz, the lawsuit said.
But Judge Susan Brnovich dismissed the case on Tuesday, saying Damask’s course did not inhibit Sabra’s personal worship in any way.
“Mr. Sabra was not required to adopt the views expressed by Dr. Damask or the authors Dr. Damask cited to in his course, but only to demonstrate an understanding of the material taught,” Brnovich wrote. “Mr. Sabra was simply exposed to ‘attitudes and outlooks at odds’ with his own religious perspective.”
The lawsuit comes after Sabra posted three quiz questions from the world politics class to social media in May, igniting a firestorm of online criticism that caused the college’s interim President Christina Haines to apologize for the “inaccurate” and “inappropriate” questions.
The chancellor of Maricopa Community College District, of which SCC is a part, later stepped in and expressed concern that Damask’s academic freedom had been violated.
Damask told The Arizona Republic on Thursday that he was relieved by the decision, and called CAIR’s position to condemn any “real or perceived disapproval of religion” dangerous.
“Civilization won,” Damask said. “What CAIR was asking for in this case was really to turn the First Amendment on itself.”
A spokesperson for theArizona chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations did not respond to a request for comment.
Sabra was enrolled in Damask’s online world politics course, which featured lessons on Islamic terrorism. According to the lawsuit, Damask repeatedly condemned Islam as a religion that definitively teaches terrorism.
In May, Sabra posted screenshots from the quiz to social media, where they were quickly shared through social media by several influencers and Muslim community members.
The quiz included statements such as “Contemporary terrorism is Islamic” and “Terrorism is justified within the context of Jihad in Islam.” The quiz also asserted that Islamic terrorists strive to emulate the Prophet Muhammed.
David Chami, an attorney representing CAIR, said the group filed the lawsuit to prevent Damask from “continuing to poison the minds of students.”
But Damask said the questions related to Islam that have been criticized were generalized and broad, or had been manipulated or taken out of context by CAIR.
In her ruling, Brnovich said curriculum that “merely conflicts with a student’s religious beliefs does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.”
Brnovich said Damask’s course also cited an expert saying that radical Islamic terror groups represent a “twisted” variant of Islam.
The offending component of the course was taught in the context of explaining terrorism, one aspect of which is Islamic terrorism, Brnovich wrote.
“Examining the course as a whole, a reasonable, objective observer would conclude that the teaching’s primary purpose was not the inhibition of religion,” Brnovich wrote. “Only in picking select quotes from the course can one describe the module as anti-Islam.”
Damask expressed concern that CAIR’s lawsuit was intended to intimidate teachers and professors into not tackling controversial issues.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I just backed down to political pressure,” he said. “They’re not going to make me back down.”
Defending academic freedom
After SCC began receiving backlash to the quiz questions in May, Haines, the school’s interim president, said Damask would apologize to the student and remove the questions from his curriculum.
Damask pushed back, saying he had no intention of apologizing and that his academic freedom was being threatened.
Steven Gonzales, the chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges, later launched a Committee on Academic Freedom to pursue an investigation into how the controversy was handled.
The investigation ultimately found that school officials did not follow proper procedures for student academic complaints or discrimination complaints before responding publicly about the matter.
The investigation showed that Damask and Sabra exchanged emails about the quiz questions where Damask attempted to explain that the goal of the quiz was to discuss the motivation of terrorists, not whether something is right or wrong under Islamic doctrine, according to the report.
“The focus of the SCC administration was deciding how to respond to and placate critics on social media,” the report said. “The administration paid little attention to the actual exchange between the student and Professor Damask or the context of the quiz questions.”
A spokesperson for the Maricopa County Community College District did not return a request for comment about the case’s dismissal.
Damask said he recognizes that with online courses an opportunity to gauge student discomfort with controversial subjects may have been lost. As he continues teaching courses online at the college amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, he said he has made more of an effort to encourage students to reach out to him directly if they have questions about the material.
But Damask said he still feels disappointed and irritated at college administrators for their “horrible” job in handling the situation.
“I’m gonna try to continue doing what I’m doing, teaching students in the best way that I can and try to move on,” he said.
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