Hamline University asks judge to dismiss ex-instructor’s lawsuit

Hamline University has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the school by a former instructor who faced backlash after she showed paintings of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class.

Erika López Prater, who was an adjunct professor in the school’s Art and Digital Media Department, was scheduled to teach a class during spring semester 2023. But after a Muslim student complained to the school about the Oct. 6 lesson, the university chose not to renew her contract.

The incident sparked outcry from many in the Muslim community who believe any depiction of the Islamic prophet is sacrilegious. Once word of the situation spread, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Everett sent an email to Hamline students and faculty saying López Prater’s actions were “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” though it did not mention her by name.

Soon after, the story made national headlines and sparked a larger debate on academic freedom.

López Prater sued Hamline University on claims that the administration’s actions amounted to defamation and religious discrimination. The lawsuit was initially filed in Ramsey County District Court but was refiled in federal court earlier this month.

Now the university is arguing that López Prater’s civil complaint fails to make claims that “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.”

“While there may be some general public debate about ‘academic freedom’ and a university’s right to exercise its own discretion in making personnel decisions, [López Prater’s] claims, as presented in the complaint, must be sufficient to satisfy the applicable legal standards,” the filing states. “It is not enough to say that the legal and factual claims alleged are interesting or debatable — they must satisfy legal standards showing that a claim to relief … is plausible on its face.”

Magistrate Judge Dulce J. Foster told attorneys on either side of the case on Friday that she will hold off on scheduling a jury trial while she considers the motion to dismiss the case.

A motion hearing is scheduled for May 17.