Mob Rule Continues as San Francisco State University Railroads Professor

SFSU investigation violates the professor’s First Amendment rights

Earlier this month swimmer Riley Gaines, who opposes letting men who masquerade as women compete in women’s sports, was attacked by a trans activist mob when she tried to speak at the school.

Now comes word that San Francisco State University is trying to railroad a professor who showed a portrait of the Prophet Muhammad in his history class last Fall. The school is investigating the professor for supposed harassment.

Classrooms should be sacrosanct spaces for professors. They shouldn’t be investigated for what they say in class, unless they single out a specific student for abuse, which didn’t happen in this case.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has asked San Francisco State University to discontinue the investigation, saying it violates the professor’s First Amendment rights.  The Middle East Studies Association of North America has also asked SFSU to discontinue the investigation, arguing it violates academic freedom

But despite these objections the school is continuing to investigate the professor for his classroom speech.

The fracas started last fall when SFSU associate history professor Maziar Behrooz was teaching his longstanding class on the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700. Behrooz showed a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad, as he has done in the class without any objections for many years.

This time a Muslim student objected to him after class, claiming it was not permissible to show portraits of Muhammad. Behrooz stood his ground on the basis of academic freedom, telling the student that as the professor he gets to decide what is taught in his class.

The grievance mongering student then complained to the chair of the history department, who relayed the complaint back to Behrooz.

Behrooz says he told the history chair that the student’s view is not shared by all Muslims.  He said the portrait of Muhammad he showed in class is sold at marketplaces in Tehran. And that lots of Shiite Muslims have drawings of Muhammad in their homes.

But the student also complained to other administrators. And this March the University’s Office of Equity Programs and Compliance told Behrooz it was launching an investigation and would interview him in early April.

Professor Behrooz,  for his part, sounds cowed by the investigation. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he was reconsidering whether to show a portrait of Muhammad again.

And Behrooz was rather tight-lipped when contacted by the California Globe and asked what happened when University investigators spoke to him at their scheduled early April meeting. He would only say, “The issue is pending, I would like to wait [and] see where it goes first, than talk about it.”

Earlier this month, FIRE sent SFSU president Lynn Mahoney a letter demanding that she halt the investigation.  “As a public institution bound by the First Amendment, SFSU’s actions and decisions — including the pursuit of disciplinary sanctions — must not violate faculty expressive freedoms, including academic freedom to determine whether and how to introduce or approach material that may be challenging, upsetting, or even deeply offensive to some students,” wrote FIRE program officer Sabrina Conza.

“To this end, displaying an image of Muhammad may similarly deeply offend some. But as it was pedagogically relevant to the course at issue, the First Amendment’s protection of academic freedom precludes punishing it,” she asserted.

She added that according to prior court rulings the mere fact of an investigation regardless of the outcome can chill free speech. “SFSU’s

Investigation into Behrooz also carries the implicit threat of discipline, and the resulting chilling effect constitutes a cognizable First Amendment harm.”

Bobby King, a spokesman for the SFSU president, responded to FIRE by saying essentially that once the steamrolling starts it can’t easily be paused.

“The University has a duty to respond to all reports of discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual exploitation, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking and retaliation, “ he emailed. “When a complaint is reported to the University, our Equity Programs and Compliance Office is obligated to assess the report and provide outreach to the complainant named in the report. An investigation is opened if, accepting the reported conduct as true, it may constitute a violation of the nondiscrimination policy.”

“Once an investigation is initiated, the University has limited ability to dismiss it. The nondiscrimination policy only allows for discretionary dismissal of an ongoing investigation if the complainant withdraws the complaint or the University cannot gather the evidence necessary to reach a determination.”

Conza of FIRE responded to that email by saying the investigation should never have been launched in the  first place because the speech at issue was supposed to be protected by the University.

“The fact that the university must open an investigation only if, taking the reported facts as true, the actions would violate university policy, is the exact point we made in our letter to you. An initial review should have made clear Behrooz’s actions could not be a violation of your public  university’s nondiscrimination policy because they were protected by the First Amendment, and there is no need for an investigation. Displaying a pedagogically relevant image in class while neither targeting a particular student nor using the image to criticize or discriminate against Muslims and their ideology does not, and cannot, under with the First Amendment constitute a violation of SFSU’s discrimination policy.”

In response,  Bobby King, the spokesman for SFSU president Lynn Mahoney, referred Conza to a campus wide message from Mahoney about the incident.

In the statement Mahoney paid lip service to academic freedom as she suggested that Professor Behrooz’s classroom speech might be some form of harassment.

“I am deeply committed to protecting academic freedom. I am also deeply committed to protecting our students’ and employees’ rights to learn and work in an environment that is free from harassment  and other forms of discrimination,” she wrote. “This incident highlights some of the challenges that SF State and other CSU universities face in implementing our systemwide antidiscrimination policies. SF State will  work swiftly to address the concerns raised by all involved in this complaint and will include the Academic Freedom Committee in that work.”

The University is also disregarding complaints from the Middle East Studies Association. MESA president Eve Troutt Powell told Mahoney in a letter that “distinguished scholars of Islamic art and history have pointed out that it is historically inaccurate to presume that depicting the Prophet has always been prohibited in Islam. Such claims erase the diversity of Islamic practice, which in many times and places has included the commissioning and viewing of figurative depictions of Muhammad as a form of veneration. There is therefore no justification for launching an investigation of a faculty member for using such pedagogically valuable depictions.”

The letter concluded  by saying, “We therefore call on you to immediately terminate the investigation of Professor Behrooz and publicly reaffirm SFSU’s firm commitment to academic freedom.”

Powell did not reply to a request for comment.

What is FIRE’s next move now that they have been rebuffed by the SFSU?  FIRE program officer Sabrina Conza told the California Globe: “We are still evaluating next steps to continue advocating for the First Amendment rights of all students and faculty at San Francisco State University.”