Nicholas Damask, a professor of political science at Scottsdale Community College (SCC) and former Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, spoke to a January 6th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the Council for American-Islamic Relations' (CAIR) failed attempt to silence his free speech rights by lawfare. The following is a summary of his comments:
CAIR, an American Islamist organization with a reputation for waging "lawfare," i.e., filing lawsuits with the aim of abolishing public discourse critical of Islam, targeted Damask and SCC in 2020. In April of that year, Damask, with a quarter century of experience teaching a world politics course at SCC, received a brief email from a Muslim student informing Damask that he was "offended" by the professor's "class content on Islamic terrorism." Although the student never filed a formal complaint, Damask replied that the intent of the class was to explore the "motivation" of the "tens of thousands" of young men, many from privileged backgrounds, who had "flocked" to Syria and Afghanistan to fight for terror groups, mainly ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria].
The student also excerpted quiz questions from the professor's unit on Islamic Terrorism, "without any context," and uploaded them to the Instagram account of a Canadian Muslim with a social media following in the hundreds of thousands. "Overnight," hostile messages started pouring into SCC's Instagram account from global locales, including Malaysia, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territories. Some of the messages threatened SCC with a school shooting or bombing, while others were more personal, going as far as to threaten to "slit [Damask's] throat." Damask took his family and fled the house, only to return when it was sufficiently secured.
The online furor eventually calmed, and the college district's chancellor, supportive of Damask "to this day," investigated the incident and found Damask blameless. In June of 2020, CAIR sued both SCC and Damask, asking the federal court to issue an "injunction ... that would prevent the teaching of Islamic terrorism in my class [and] the entire college district." Because Damask teaches in a public institution, CAIR claimed the class content disapproved of Islam and created "a state-sponsored disfavor of religion, specifically Islam."
CAIR sought an "injunction that they wanted a federal court to issue that would prevent the teaching of Islamic terrorism in (Damask's) class or for that matter in any other class in the entire college district." A district attorney explained that CAIR was "trying to create a defamation of Islam exception to the First Amendment." In cases such as these, the principle of "qualified immunity" protects a public employee from being personally sued, unless a court ruled their activities were unconstitutional. The principle was inapplicable in CAIR's case because "the courts have never ... said that certain content is off limits in a college class."
The exception to "qualified immunity" is when a public employee should have been aware that a "reasonable" person would not have engaged in said actions. CAIR claimed that "it should have been common sense" to never insult Islam. CAIR's attorneys cited the 2002 Supreme Court "Hope" case in which a prisoner sued prison guards who had "tied him to a post for seven hours in the Texas sun." The court ruled that common sense should have prevailed, despite no law prohibiting the specific act. The district judge dismissed the claim as well as CAIR's lawsuit against Damask and SCC. Undeterred, in August 2020 CAIR appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Even though it is known for issuing liberal rulings, the Ninth Circuit nonetheless "upheld the dismissal" and issued an opinion that further "chastised" CAIR.
A revealing aspect of CAIR's filing was its accusation that, by including the image of Mohammed in his lecture slides discussing terrorism, Damask "insulted the prophet." Sharia law imposes strict punishments on its adherents who violate its anti-blasphemy laws, and Islamists worldwide seek any opportunity to impose Sharia on non-Muslims and counter free speech protections guaranteed in the West. While "insulting the prophet" has been used as a rallying cry that incites fundamentalist Muslims to violence, a related tactic Islamists employ is using the West's legal system to intimidate and silence critics of Islam by exhausting them with expensive lawsuits.
Damask continues to teach his course, and his experience has motivated him to add to his course content on Islamic terrorism and draw lessons from his ordeal. Grateful for SCC's support, along with the support of the advocacy group FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), Damask considers himself "lucky" that the federal courts upheld his rights. If CAIR's injunctions had been upheld, professors would be unable to discuss 9/11 within the context of Islam. "You could never, ever bring religion into it to try to explain a given phenomenon." While the lawsuit wended its way through the courts, he was contacted by two colleagues who teach a religion and sociology class, respectively. The atmosphere of intimidation of professors who engage in free speech is chilling, as evidenced by his colleagues' admission that they "[excise]" discussions of Islam from their curricula for fear of being sued.
Damask is concerned about the "multicultural indoctrination" occurring throughout society, whether in law schools, law enforcement, the military, churches, medicine, media, or big business, where "mandatory diversity sessions" are "indoctrination sessions." Higher education has fallen prey to the forces of indoctrination that suppress free speech, and kindergartens through twelfth grades are being subverted as well. The multiculturalists have become the gatekeepers for who becomes a faculty member, which dissertation is accepted, and which student passes a course. "Higher ed[ucation] is not a place to go for open debate and discussion. That's not where you have free speech. What you have [is] multicultural indoctrination of young people."
He is further concerned that the source of the pressure on our educational system is from outside groups, "some of whom [are] not even American." These foreign groups receive overseas support to degrade America's public education system so that it "conform[s] to a left-wing multicultural, insane worldview." Damask has advice for others who are facing similar "grievance groups that want to cancel everything that offends them." It makes all the difference that you are not alone and have the support of family and your institution to "stand your ground." Damask owes it to the generations who preceded him "that worked too hard" to ensure that America's guaranteed rights are not lost to groups like CAIR. "I'm not going to give in."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.