ST. PAUL, MN — Hamline University has earned a spot on a national top 10 list, but perhaps not one that its students and faculty will be proud of.
Each year, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) releases its list of the "10 worst colleges for free speech" list.
Hamline's recent controversy involving its condemnation of an art history professor came just in time for the university to make FIRE's 2023 "worst" list.
"Hamline University, a Minnesota liberal arts college, made international headlines for illiberal art censorship after it punished a professor who dared to show historic Islamic art during a lesson on Islamic art history," writes FIRE.
"It ultimately took a lawsuit, filed by López Prater on Jan. 17, for Hamline to suddenly proclaim it has been committed to academic freedom all along: '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 coexist,' a university statement said. In context, that statement is as preposterous as the university's understanding of faculty rights."
As Patch previously covered, a campus-wide email sent by the administration in November said that Erika López Prater's decision to show 14th and 16th-century images of the founder of Islam, to students was "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic."
Some Muslims, including a student in her class who complained, believe images of Muhammad are idolatrous and should be prohibited.
López Prater, who provided a warning before showing the images, was dismissed from the university before the spring semester.
When the incident became international news last month, Hamline President Fayneese Miller criticized the media and defended the administration.
In tears during a news conference last week put on by a Muslim civil rights group, student Aram Wedatalla said she had never seen an image of Muhammad before the class.
López Prater later hired Fabian May and Anderson, a downtown Minneapolis-based employment and civil rights law firm.
In a Jan. 16 statement, the law firm noted that "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."
"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. "Hamline's actions have caused significant damage to Dr. López Prater."
The lawsuit demands compensatory damages.
Mere hours after the lawsuit was announced in mid-January, Hamline's president admitted fault in a new statement.
"In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom," read a joint letter from Miller and Ellen Watters, the chair of Hamline's board.
"Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term 'Islamophobic' was therefore flawed."
The university is not the only entity to change its tune on the controversy.
After its local chapter held a news conference condemning López Prater and defending the student who complained, the national arm of the Council on American-Islamic Relations later rushed in to say that its "official position" is that the academic study of ancient paintings depicting Muhammad "does not, by itself, constitute Islamophobia."
CAIR added that they've seen "no evidence" that former Hamline University professor Erika Lopez Prater had bigoted intent or engaged in Islamophobia during her course last semester.