A Scottsdale Community College professor did not violate his Muslim student's rights when he taught about religious justification in Islamic terrorism, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge's 2020 ruling dismissing the lawsuit filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on behalf of student Mohamed Sabra. In her 2020 order, District Judge Susan M. Brnovich found that Nicholas Damask's World Politics coursework and quizzes did not violate Sabra's First Amendment rights or require him to abandon his faith as a Muslim.
"Curriculum that merely conflicts with a student's religious beliefs does not violate the Free Exercise Clause," she wrote, citing precedent.
"Dr. Damask's course did not inhibit Mr. Sabra's personal worship in any way," Brnovich wrote.
Instead, students merely were asked to "demonstrate an understanding of the material taught."
The appellate court agreed. In a 2-1 ruling, it found that "Sabra suffered no First Amendment injury through his mere exposure to inflammatory course materials."
"This is a win for civilization," Damask told the Investigative Project on Terrorism Thursday morning. "Our values, our institutions are being eroded all around us. It's an odd coalition of the left and multiculturalists and the psychotic, and they're working to undermine everything that's core, that's central to America. And here's one little bright spot that our core values, our institutions like higher education, have been saved."
He remains on the Scottsdale faculty and just completed his latest World Politics course with no changes in its content. CAIR sued both the college district and Damask individually, but the courts agreed that, as a public employee, he had qualified immunity for issues related to his work.
An adverse ruling would reverberate far beyond his classroom. "It would affect every single school teacher, K-12, in any public institution with a teaching or education format. Who'd want to do that? Who'd want to be an educator of any sort? You personally could be sued by these creepy organizations like CAIR."
CAIR's lawsuit wanted to force the removal of course materials it claimed to "have the primary effect of disapproving of Islam." It also took issue with a slide in Damask's lessons that featured an image of Islam's prophet Muhammad.
"Their arguments are gibberish and I think they know that," Damask said. But CAIR sees it as "'a legal jihad we're waging here. We're looking to intimidate.' Which is an odd position for a civil rights group."
Sabra's complaint focused on quiz questions which asked whether Islamic terrorists try to emulate Muhammad, whether terrorism is "encouraged in Islamic doctrine," and whether it is justified within Islam.
The questions, Sabra complained, forced him to "either disavow his religion or be punished by getting the answers wrong on the quiz."
After the quiz, Sabra wrote to Damask to express his concern.
The course wasn't "'for' or 'against' anything" Damask responded, "but aim[ed] to explain international politics." The quiz questions did not aim to determine whether the interpretations were right or wrong, "but rather to convey what terrorists believe," the Ninth Circuit court said.
But Sabra never tried to ask Damask to clarify the intent behind the questions. He never filed a complaint with the school. Instead, he took his grievance to social media, which stoked emotions and led to threats against Damask and the school.
"It went from zero to 100," Damask said, "from having a class for 24 years to now you're being dragged into federal court."
"But in teaching about terrorism, understanding what is motivating tens of thousands of young men across the Muslim world, middle and upper class," who are joining jihad is relevant and important, he said. "It's same sources is motivating them. The point is not 'are they correct or incorrect about that source,' the point is that's what's motivating them."
The section on Islamic terrorism, the ruling noted, represented "a fragment of a single module that was itself just one-sixth of the [World Politics] course."
And Damask's course did not trample on the First Amendment's Establishment clause, as CAIR argued.
"Indeed, the most instructive authority we have identified goes the other way," the Ninth Circuit ruling said. It cited a Fourth Circuit case from 2019 in which a Christian student objected to questions about Islam's shahada, a declaration that there "is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." Correctly knowing its content, the ruling found, was not a requirement that the student "engage in any devotional practice related to Islam." Instead, it was simply "an academic exercise to demonstrate her understanding of the world history curriculum."
CAIR also claimed that Damask frustrated its work to fight "Islamophobia" because it had to work with a religious scholar to develop a program rebutting his coursework.
The court criticized CAIR attorneys for failing to follow through on one of their claims against the community college district. Its lawsuit claimed that Damask, as a summer department chair was a "final policymaker" for the College District, which "knew or had constructive knowledge" that he "was teaching the disapproval of Islam."
The district rejected that claim in its brief, but CAIR said nothing more, thus abandoning the claim, the court ruled. "This failure cannot be attributed to any lack of opportunity. The Reply Brief reported that it contained 5,400 words. Under our court's rules, a reply brief can extend to 7,000 words. ... We can only infer that Plaintiffs had nothing to say."
Despite Damask's court victory, CAIR's intimidation may be working, he said. There is a worry that professors might self-censor their instruction rather than risk a similar experience.
"I understand that not everybody, for very good reasons, can do the right thing and do what's right," Damask said. "They have families, they're older and have to retire. But I hope this is encouraging that teachers, average people, professors will stand up to this intimidation."
Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the author of eight books on national security and terrorism, the producer of two documentaries, and the author of hundreds of articles in national and international publications.
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