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SFSU doubles down on investigation of professor who showed class Muhammad depiction

San Francisco State University has rejected requests to stop investigating a professor who allegedly showed a drawing of the prophet Muhammed in a history class.

Two nonprofit organizations sent letters to SFSU leadership requesting the university halt its probe of history Professor Maziar Behrooz, who was accused by a student of showing a picture of Muhammed during an Islamic Studies class last fall.

Behrooz reportedly showed the image of Muhammed in a fall 2022 class called “The Islamic World: 1500-1700.” Behrooz declined to comment to The College Fix.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Middle East Studies Association of North America have asked the university to terminate the investigation.

FIRE, a nonprofit civil liberties group dedicated to protecting free speech, sent an initial letter to SFSU President Lynn Mahoney on April 6.

“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,” FIRE’s April 6 letter stated.

“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,” it stated.

SFSU responded to FIRE with an April 10 memo from Mahoney addressed to the campus community, doubling down on the university’s decision to move forward with the investigation of Behrooz.

“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,” Mahoney wrote.

The memo from Mahoney also addressed the recent incident involving “Save Women’s Sports” activist Riley Gaines, who says that she was physically assaulted by protesters at an April 6 event hosted by SFSU’s Turning Point USA chapter.

FIRE responded with a second letter stating the university’s response only increased the group’s concern “about SFSU’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.”

“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,” FIRE wrote in its April 10 letter.

“Thus, SFSU must end this investigation, because as an institution bound by the First
Amendment, it cannot continue violating someone’s rights just because an investigation has
already started,” it stated.

SFSU’s media relations department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The College Fix.

MESA, a nonprofit that promotes the study of the Middle East, also contacted Mahoney in an April 13 letter from both MESA’s president and the chair of the organization’s Committee on Academic Freedom.

“We note that Professor Behrooz has been showing such images in this course for some twenty years and that similar depictions are regularly shown and discussed in courses at colleges and universities across the country,” the letter stated, calling for an end to the investigation.

The letter further provides details about the reported incident involving Behrooz, who is professionally affiliated with MESA. Citing media reports, the letter asserts that a student initially complained to the professor about the depiction being forbidden in Islam.

The complaint reached the department head and SFSU administrators, resulting in the Office of Equity Programs and Compliance opening an investigation.

In its April 13 letter, MESA mentions previous comments the organization made to the president of Hamline University, which was caught up in a similar controversy regarding Islamic art.

“[D]istinguished 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,” the letter stated.

Hamline President Fayneese Miller supported the university’s decision not to rehire an art history instructor who showed two depictions of Muhammed in class. Miller announced her retirement in early April after faculty voted in January for her resignation.

MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom did not respond to a request for comment from The College Fix on whether SFSU responded to its letter about Behrooz.

MORE: Hamline faculty ask president to step down over Prophet Muhammed depiction controversy

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About the Author
Margaret Peppiatt - Franciscan University of Steubenville