San Francisco State University this week is much in the news over free speech and academic freedom — for all the wrong reasons. We just discussed how former swimmer Riley Gaines was allegedly assaulted and had to be locked away in a room for her own protection after trying to speak on transgender issues at the school. Now, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has issued a letter to San Francisco State University on a new and troubling controversy over academic freedom. The university opened an investigation into Maziar Behrooz, an associate professor of history, reportedly due to his showing a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad.
The image was displayed once in a class on the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700. After a Muslim student complained, the school put Behrooz under investigation. The controversy is closely analogous to the situation discussed earlier at Hamline University where a professor was denied the renewal of his contract after showing a painting of Muhammad in an arts class.
When Behrooz disagreed, the student went to the department chair. The professor explained that the student's view on the prohibition of any image of Muhammad was not uniformly accepted by Muslims and that many Shiite Muslims have such drawings on walls in their homes. He also correctly noted that he has the academic freedom to make such choices for his class.
Nevertheless, the university launched an investigation. Why? The facts appear established. The only question is whether Behrooz has a right to make such decisions in his course. He clearly does.
I was struck by the anemic expression of academic freedom in the faculty manual of the university. This is the only reference to the core right:
"Academic freedom for all members of the academic community demands that channels of administrative communication be open in both directions, and that they be used regularly and effectively. In 1969-70, the Academic Senate created a Committee on Academic Freedom, elected by the faculty."
Not exactly a roaring endorsement. However, as a state school, SFSU must comply with the First Amendment and academic freedom has long been extended protections by the courts.
As correctly noted by FIRE, the courts have repeatedly warned against state schools denying the First Amendment protections afforded to academic freedom. Indeed, the words of the Supreme Court in Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967), are particularly apt in this case in warning officials not to "cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom."