Former instructor who showed image of Prophet Muhammad in class suing Hamline University

A former art history instructor at Hamline University is now filing a religious discrimination and defamation lawsuit against the school.

The university chose not to renew the contract of adjunct professor Erika López Prater after she showed a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad during class, sparking a national debate over academic freedom.

López Prater was scheduled to teach a class at Hamline University in the spring, but the university backpedaled on its decision following outrage after the incident. Many Muslims see showing the image of the Prophet Muhammad as sacrilegious.

Some local Muslim leaders have come forward in support of the University’s decision.

“Islamophobia takes in many forms,” CAIR-MN Executive Director Jaylani Hussein said in a news conference last week. “It’s important to remember that academic freedom is not absolute and universities have the right to restrict speech that promotes hate or discrimination.”

However, the national Muslim Public Affairs Council has asked the University to reverse its decision.

“The painting was not Islamophobic,” the council said. “In fact, it was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Muslim king in order to honor the Prophet. … Additionally, misusing the label ‘Islamophobia’ has the negative effect of watering down the term and rendering it less effective in calling out actual acts of bigotry.”

RELATED: Hamline University under fire for art professor’s dismissal

The complaint, which law firm Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP said will soon be filed in Ramsey County District Court, alleges that the accusations of Islamophobia will follow López Prater throughout her career, which could potentially result in her not being able to get a tenure position at another college or university.

According to the complaint, López Prater told students in her syllabus that the class would discuss art containing images of various religious personages and iconography, including Christ, the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad. She gave students the option to miss class for religious observance and offered ways to make up the work missed, according to the complaint.

Neither the university nor Allison Baker, the chair of Hamline’s Art and Digital Media Department, suggested changes to the syllabus or expressed concern about showing the image of the Prophet Muhammad, according to the complaint.

No students came to López Prater raising concerns about any religious imagery that would be shown in class, according to the complaint. The complaint also states that she warned students verbally before displaying the image.

A Muslim student stayed after class to speak with López Prater.

“By her statements and actions, [the student] wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students, and Muslim students who did not object to images for the Prophet Muhammad — a privilege granted to no other religion or religious belief at Hamline,” the complaint said.

After the conversation, López Prater emailed Baker to explain what happened and according to the complaint, Baker responded, “I’m sorry that happened and it sounded like you did everything right. I believe in academic freedom so you have my support but thank you for the heads up.”

The next day, López Prater got word that the student had made a complaint to the college’s Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

The dean of the school’s College of Liberal Arts, Marcela Kostihova, told López Prater that there had been a large outcry within the Muslim Student Association and that Muslim staff were threatening to resign, the complaint said.

“In their second conversation, López Prater expressed concern to Kostihova about the issue getting out of hand and the damage it may cause to her career,” the complaint says. “López Prater explained that excluding these Muslim paintings of the Prophet Muhammad would be discriminatory, in that it would privilege the religious views of Muslims who forbid depictions of Muhammad over the historical record and people of other religious views, including Muslims, who do not hold that such images are forbidden.”

The complaint states that López Prater apologized in front of the class and offered to meet with students to discuss the matter further.

Dr. López Prater then states she was defamed in an email to the entire campus from Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Everett. The email states:

“Several weeks ago, Hamline administration was made aware of an incident that occurred in an online class. Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic. While the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline’s Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable.

“I want to make clear: isolated incidents such as we have seen define neither Hamline nor its ethos. They clearly do not meet community standards or expectations for behavior. We will utilize all means at our disposal, up to and including the conduct process, to ensure the emotional health, security and well-being of all members of our community.”

While Everett’s email didn’t name López Prater, the complaint states that it was obvious that she was the target of the email and “Anyone with a little time and interest could easily discover that Everett was referring to López Prater.”

After the email was sent, López Prater states she was further defamed in several articles in Hamline’s student newspaper, The Oracle.

Ellen Watters, chair of the Hamline University Board of Trustees, and Fayneese Miller, president of Hamline University, responded to the lawsuit in a joint statement.

The statement begins:

“Hamline University is the epicenter of a public conversation about academic freedom and students with diverse religious beliefs.

“There have been many communications, articles and opinion pieces that have caused us to review and re-examine our actions. Hamline is a multi-cultural, multi-religious community that has been a leader in creating space for civil conversations. Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep.

“In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term “Islamophobic” was therefore flawed. We strongly support academic freedom for all members of the Hamline community. We also believe that academic freedom and support for students can and should co-exist. How this duality is exemplified on our campuses, especially in the current multicultural environment in which we live, is an exciting, robust, and honest conversation for academics, intellectuals, students, and the public to have.”

Portion of a statement from Hamline University officials

Hamline University said it will host two conversations in the coming months on “academic freedom and student care” and “academic freedom and religion.”

“Finally, it was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students–care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two co-exist,” the university stated. “Faculty have the right to choose what and how they teach. Faculty care for and about students. This is certainly the case at Hamline University, a place where we pride ourselves on knowing the names of all of our students.”