California university investigates Iran-born professor for showing students Muhammad art

Already under fire for letting protesters attack NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines, SFSU faces scrutiny for allegedly unconstitutional "discrimination" investigation of scholar Maziar Behrooz.

Published: April 8, 2023 12:09am

A public university in one of America's most progressive cities is facing a potential two-front legal battle over alleged First Amendment infringements involving Islam and gender identity.

San Francisco State University is at least the third college in recent months to take action against Muslim-commissioned depictions of the Prophet Muhammad following complaints by Muslim students, implicitly taking sides in a 1,400-year-old sectarian split that has also exhibited racial and ethnic fault lines.

History professor Maziar Behrooz, a 28-year veteran of SFSU, told The Chronicle of Higher Education he's under investigation by the Office of Equity Programs and Compliance for showing his students the same depiction he has used in the Islamic history class for years.

His Thursday Zoom meeting with the office was limited to whether "I had any questions regarding the procedure," Behrooz told Just the News Friday. Two colleagues accompanied him and "not much happened."

As for whether he'll show a Muhammad depiction in next semester's course, "I have not decided … I am waiting to see how this process develops," Behrooz wrote in an email. He said he is not being advised by a faculty union representative or outside group "at this point."

A "devout Muslim" student confronted Behrooz outside class last semester, saying it's never permissible to depict the prophet, according to the Chronicle, which cited the incident in a Wednesday feature on the "sea change" in professor-student power dynamics.

When Behrooz asserted his right to determine the curriculum, the student complained to his department chair, Laura Lisy-Wagner. The Iran-born professor said he told the chair the depictions are common in Shiite Muslim homes and "can be bought at markets in Tehran near holy shrines."

It's his understanding that the student went "higher up" to get Behrooz in trouble, leading to the office telling him in March it was investigating, the Chronicle reported. He was reevaluating whether to show the depiction again because "one has to also take into consideration …  the sensitivities of some religious people, be it Muslim or otherwise."

The California State University campus could face greater consequences than Minnesota's private Hamline University, which is not subject to the First Amendment, if Behrooz decides to take legal action.

History professor Erika Lopez Prater, whose promised contract renewal was reversed after a Hamline student complained about a Muhammad depiction from her opt-out lesson, is suing the university in state court for religious discrimination and defamation among other claims. 

Officials initially called her lesson "undeniably … Islamophobic" and said "respect" for Muslim students should have "superseded" academic freedom. President Fayneese Miller, who belatedly retracted the characterizations after a lopsided faculty vote of no confidence, announced her retirement this month.

Elsewhere, Minnesota's Macalester College temporarily shuttered and then shrouded an art exhibit by Portland State University art professor Taravat Talepasand that depicted partially exposed figures in hijabs and niqabs after Muslim students complained.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) told SFSU in a warning letter Thursday that the school had already crossed the legal line by opening an investigation "with the implication of potential punishment … ranging from mandatory participation in educational programming to suspension or dismissal."

There's no basis for the investigation because showing a depiction that offended one student fails the Supreme Court's test for discriminatory harassment, which requires conduct "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" that it deprives the student "educational opportunities," FIRE said. 

SFSU also is facing questions about letting protesters continually disrupt and then physically harass record-setting NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines, a vocal critic of using gender identity rather than sex to determine eligibility in women's sports, when she spoke to the Turning Point USA chapter Thursday.

Police eventually barricaded Gaines in a room for three hours, only threatening to arrest protesters assembled outside the room shortly before she left, according to a multimedia Twitter thread by campus newspaper Golden Gate Xpress.

When Assistant Dean of Students Chris Trudell tried to convince protesters to leave, some students suggested Gaines pay them to disperse and one shouted "make her lose her pride," a possible reference to sexual violence. "This is terrorism, kidnapping, and extortion," Rep. Marjorie Tayor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted Friday.

The University Police Department confirmed to Fox News Friday that it was investigating the incident but had made "no arrests related to the event." Police said the "disruption occurred after the conclusion of the event." Ample video evidence shows Gaines' event repeatedly disrupted from both inside and outside the room before police shepherded her out.

The public university has a history of going easy on disruptive protests against disfavored viewpoints. 

Campus police did not substantially interfere with pro-Palestine activists shouting down then-Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at a Hillel event in 2016, prompting a civil rights lawsuit by Jewish students who claimed SFSU officials facilitated antisemitic harassment. 

Then-President Les Wong publicly feted the General Union of Palestinian Students, whose leader said he fantasized about "stab[bing] an Israeli soldier" with his knife.

That same year, SFSU opened an investigation of a black student caught on viral video physically attacking a white student for wearing dreadlocks, but it's not clear whether it imposed any sanctions. 

SFSU did not respond to Just the News queries about the Behrooz investigation, Gaines melee or result of the dreadlocks investigation.

Regarding Behrooz, the university told Inside Higher Ed that while it couldn't "comment on specific reports or investigation," it will open an investigation if the reported conduct "may constitute a violation of the nondiscrimination policy." It did not explain how showing Islamic art could constitute discrimination.

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