An art history professor filed suit on Jan. 18 against her school for firing her after she showed a painting of the Islamic prophet Muhammad during a virtual lecture. Adjunct professor Erika López Prater received major backlash from Muslim students and faculty at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., for showing the image despite giving several warnings beforehand.
On the day López Prater announced her suit, the private university issued a statement calling its earlier actions a "misstep" and affirming a commitment to academic freedom. But for some, it wasn't enough. On Jan. 23, faculty members voted 71-12 to call Hamline University President Fayneese Miller to resign over the school's treatment of López Prater. Miller rejected the call, vowing in a statement published in the school newspaper that she would continue building trust with the Hamline community through words and actions.
López Prater's removal sparked a national debate over the importance of academic freedom and its coexistence with religion. In her complaint, she levels seven counts of discrimination, breach of contract, and defamation against the school, totalling in excess of $350,000 in damages.
During an October lecture on Islamic art, López Prater showed a 14th-century depiction of Islam's Muhammad receiving a revelation from the angel Gabriel. Muslim artist Rashid-al-Din created the work at the request of a Sunni Muslim king. Today, a majority of practicing Muslims consider it blasphemous to create and view artistic renderings of Muhammad.
López Prater included a warning in her syllabus that course material would include artistic depictions of holy figures and, if students felt uncomfortable, they could inform her and opt out of viewing. During the virtual lecture, she gave students a second warning, giving anyone the opportunity to turn their screens away or minimize the livestream.
After the lecture, Aram Wedatalla, president of Hamline's Muslim Student Association, expressed anger at López Prater for displaying the image to anyone, regardless of warnings or religious affiliation.
Three days after the October lecture, liberal arts dean Marcela Kostihova met with López Prater and explained that students and faculty were calling for her resignation. Court documents state that the dean said Muslims likened the professor's actions to cursing Islam or using a racial slur in class. She said it had caused "a large outcry within the Muslim Student Association as well as among Muslim faculty and staff, and that Muslim staff were threatening to resign."
López Prater explained that excluding certain Muslim works would be discriminatory and inadvertently privilege teaching modern Islamic practice over historic records, which she verbalized before showing the slides in class. "I am showing you this image for a reason," López Prater said in the class recording. "While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture."
The professor gave a second apology to her entire class. But by the end of the month, art and digital media chair Allison Baker informed López Prater that she would not be teaching classes next semester, despite previous oral agreements, López Prater's lawsuit states.
In November, the college released a statement condemning her exhibition of the image as "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic." The school paper published an editorial on "incidents of hate and discrimination," describing an unnamed art history professor's lecture as "Islamophobic" and one which "harmed and traumatized" Hamline's Islamic community.
López Prater reached out to Kostihova and Baker, calling the article defamatory and wildly out of proportion considering administrators knew she conducted the class with respectful and academic intent. Department of Religion Chair Mark Berkson submitted a letter to the editor defending López Prater. The student paper published Berkson's letter, removed it two days later, then republished it in January, citing a commitment to its standard of diverse viewpoints.
Many other academics have come to López Prater's defense, most notably Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan. Gruber penned an essay and started a petition in her support. She describes the piece that López Prater displayed as an "authentic and irreplaceable work of art," noting the work's importance in "widespread efforts to diversify and 'decolonize' global surveys of art history."
"Hamline administrators have labeled this corpus of Islamic depictions of Muhammad, along with their teaching, as hateful, intolerant, and Islamophobic. And yet the visual evidence proves contrary: The images were made, almost without exception, by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons in respect for, and in exaltation of, Muhammad and the Quran," Gruber wrote. "They are, by definition, Islamophilic from their inception to their reception."
The Academic Freedom Alliance also came to López Prater's defense, describing Hamline's actions as "an egregious violation of academic freedom," which suggests "no serious commitment to academic freedom at that institution—and indeed no serious commitment to higher education."
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) explains that private universities are not directly bound by the First Amendment, but "if a private college advertises itself as a place where free speech is esteemed and protected—as most of them do—then it should be held to the same standard as a public institution."