Hamline University is the oldest private institution of higher education in Minnesota, but lately the university is known for a considerably less impressive achievement: Its leadership is attempting to cancel out academic freedom — with a blasphemy restriction.
As reported by outlets including "Inside Higher Ed" and "New Lines Magazine," Hamline recently chose not to renew the contract of an adjunct art history instructor after she sparked a controversy by showing — in a global art history class, in a session about Islamic art — a well-known medieval painting of the prophet Mohammed.
Although the instructor gave students a warning that she would show the image and that some students might want to look away, at least one student objected, complaining that such depictions violate the Muslim faith, an incident detailed in the university's student newspaper, as well as in a Dec. 9 university-wide statement from Hamline leadership.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, where I work, is urging Hamline to reinstate the instructor and allow its community to speak and teach freely in accordance with the university's commitments. Instructors must be free to risk transgressing, without sanction, students' subjective personal and religious beliefs, whatever they may be. If they are not, faculty members will likely choose to self-censor and avoid difficult material — a loss both for those professors who are unable to teach to their full abilities, and for the students who hope to be challenged during their educational careers.
But Hamline's leaders didn't just create a chilling effect among their entire community. Even worse, the university appeared to endorse restricting academic freedom essentially under the guise of a ban on blasphemy — meaning sacrilege, insult, or offense against religions and religious figures.
Lamenting the "harm" the image caused in a letter to the campus, the university's president and associate vice president for inclusive excellence wrote that "respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom" in this situation, "where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes."
"Academic freedom is very important," the administrators added, "but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others."
A blasphemy exception to academic freedom, which this ultimately would be, isn't a reasonable and narrow cutout that would protect students from perceived harm. Rather, it would be a Pandora's box: Once opened, there would be no stopping the justifications to censor that would flow from it. Just take a cursory look at what constitutes religious offense around the world today.
Should professors in a sociology class be required to avoid suggesting religions are controlled by, and preferential to, men? In art courses, must faculty avoid showing images critical of the Catholic Church's religious positions and role in politics? Should instructors teaching physics be banned from suggesting to students that certain religions teach belief systems that contradict established scientific knowledge because it might cause them to doubt their faith?
These aren't just hypotheticals. Over just the past year, an activist in Oman was arrested for suggesting "religions are patriarchal," an artist in Poland was fined for displaying a painting critical of Catholicism at a rally, and Indonesia redefined the offense of blasphemy to include persuading someone to be a nonbeliever.
In legal systems around the world, such speech constitutes blasphemy that harms and disrespects believers and their faith. These are laws that should be criticized and rejected as unacceptable limits on the right to speak and think — not rules mirrored in an American university's policymaking.
Kneecapping academic freedom, as Hamline's president advocates, so that it's "superseded" by "respect" for some religious restrictions isn't just an illiberal policy. It's an unworkable one that would limit nearly any religious history, commentary and criticism should anyone in the room object. Hamline University would do well to remember that — and to firmly shut the Pandora's box it has so foolishly opened by reinstating its art history instructor and confirming that established principles, not subjective religious rules, buttress university policies.
Sarah McLaughlin is senior scholar of global expression at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression in Philadelphia.