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College that censored Islamic terrorism quiz pays professor $155,000 to not sue

Muslim student continues litigation against college and professor for forcing him to disparage his faith.

Published: April 14, 2021 11:04pm

Updated: April 15, 2021 3:23pm

Nicholas Damask teaches a world politics course that includes a module on "Islamic Terrorism." A Muslim student in his class was so offended by the purportedly correct answers to quiz questions that he sued the professor and Maricopa County Community College District.

Seven months after a federal judge tossed that lawsuit, the college district has paid off the professor to keep him from filing his own suit for censoring his course and pressuring him to release a public relations-written apology.

Phoenix New Times obtained the settlement terms through an Arizona open records request following a vague statement from the district that the matter had been settled.

It paid $155,000 to Scottsdale Community College professor Nicholas Damask, $30,000 of that earmarked for his lawyer, for his agreement not to pursue litigation or "other claims" against district employees, according to the newspaper. The district also said it would strengthen its commitment to academic freedom.

It may have feared Damask would seek to strip "qualified immunity" from college officials, in their roles as public actors, for ignoring "clearly established" law. 

A judge denied qualified immunity to California State University officials in 2019 for allegations of personally violating the constitutional rights of pro-life students. The university system settled the case for $243,000 and changed its student activity fee policies to stop discriminating against pro-life views.

A year ago, a California school district paid a student $665,000 for punishing him over an Islamic terrorist spoof video in the style of a James Bond movie. 

Both California and Arizona are under the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In its recent ruling denying qualified immunity to University of Iowa officials for anti-Christian bias, the 8th Circuit cited a similar ruling by the 9th Circuit on viewpoint discrimination.

The Maricopa County Community College District didn't respond to a query from Just the News seeking the terms of its settlement with Damask. The Phoenix New Times reporter didn't respond to a request to share the terms, and Damask himself didn't respond for comment.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education initially told the district it was violating 9th Circuit precedent on academic freedom, apparently prompting it to apologize for violating Damask's rights. The civil liberties group blogged that it was "happy to see the district take some financial responsibility for disregarding faculty rights," but confirmed to Just the News it hadn't seen the settlement terms.

Student Mohamed Sabra, represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, hasn't given up his legal fight against the district and Damask.

He filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit in January, claiming the Islamic terrorism module violates his First Amendment rights and that the professor is not covered by qualified immunity. The student was forced to disparage his faith in order to get a good grade, he argued.

Little mention of academic freedom committee on district website

Sabra posted three quiz questions and answers from the Islamic terrorism module on social media after Damask defended their accuracy as applied to Islamic terrorists. 

The questions asked whom terrorists "strive to emulate" (the prophet Muhammad), which Islamic verses encourage terrorism (the Medina verses), and when terrorism is justified in Islam (in the context of jihad).

Scottsdale Community College's Instagram page got hammered by criticism for the quiz. That prompted interim President Chris Haines to say Damask "will be apologizing" for his "inaccurate, inappropriate" questions that were "not reflective of the inclusive nature of our college."

Damask's dean, Kathleen Ludicello, told him the district's governing board was reviewing his course and that "a leader in the Islamic faith" would also screen his content, leading Damask to worry that his job was at risk.

A public relations official wrote an apology for Damask that pledged the professor would "ensure there's no additional insensitivities" in his course material, but the professor refused to sign it. Interim Chancellor Steven Gonzales publicly apologized to Damask several days later, following FIRE's warning.

Gonzales said the college "rush[ed] to judgment" and did not appear to have followed its own procedures when addressing the student's concerns and Damask's rights. He commissioned an independent investigation, which found the college was motivated to stop criticism on social media rather than resolve the dispute between Damask and Sabra.

The district created a Committee on Academic Freedom, led by its provost, whose mission is to "champion academic freedom and training" and resolve related disputes. It also set up an advisory council to consult faculty and staff on how to instill academic freedom in "functional areas" such as human resources.

It's not clear what progress the committee or advisory council has made since then, however. The Phoenix New Times doesn't mention either in the context of the settlement, which requires Damask not to divulge the terms or disparage district officials and employees.

The most recent mention of the committee on the district's website is from the governing board's November meeting agenda. A new paragraph on the Committee on Academic Freedom was added to the draft "Faculty Agreement" under consideration for the 2021-22 school year.

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