An art instructor is suing Hamline University for not renewing her contract after she showed a medieval depiction of Islam's prophet Muhammad in class. Incredibly, the university's response to student complaints was that "respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom."
The lawsuit, filed on January 17, accuses Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, of defamation, creating "emotional distress," and "violations of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act."
Art instructor Erika López Prater's lawsuit is the latest pushback against the university after it dismissed her and reacted to complaints from Muslim students by saying, "respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom."
"Hamline engaged in conduct toward López Prater that was extreme and outrageous," the art instructor's attorneys say. This included "intentionally and publicly denouncing" the professor as "Islamophobic," as well as engaging in an "act of intolerance."
As a result, the university engaged in "maximizing her emotional distress by announcing her termination before her last day of class, and assisting and/or facilitating her further public defamation and humiliation, thereby causing López Prater to experience severe emotional distress and physical manifestations of the same," the attorneys added.
Moreover, "Dr. López Prater's dismissal from Hamline has garnered significant attention given its implications for academic freedom at Hamline and universities around the country and all over the world," they said.
"What has not been discussed, however, is how Hamline's actions and statements may have constituted religious discrimination, defamation, and other violations of law," the attorneys added.
In the near term, she has lost the income from her adjunct position. She alleges she also suffered significant emotional distress due to her mistreatment by Hamline. In the long term, Dr. López Prater alleges that her personal and professional reputation, and her future employment prospects, have been irreparably harmed by Hamline's conduct.
The controversy started after Hamline refused to renew the instructor's contract over "Islamophobia" after a student complained about the image depicting Muhammad.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) responded to the decision, saying that the university has not only violated the instructor's academic freedom, but has also created a "chilling effect" among faculty, who may now choose to "avoid discussion of difficult subjects" rather than risk nonrenewal if someone complains.
Since then, more than 1,000 supporters of FIRE have sent letters to Hamline University protesting the school's decision.