A federal judge has ruled that an art history instructor who was dismissed after showing paintings of the Prophet Muhammad in class can proceed with a lawsuit claiming that Hamline University discriminated against her on the basis of religion.
However, other claims brought by Erika López Prater, including emotional distress and defamation, were dismissed in the order filed Friday by U.S. District Judge Katherine Menendez in St. Paul.
Menendez ruled that statements made by Hamline officials criticizing the instructor's decision to show the artwork did not meet the high standards required to show "intentional infliction of emotional distress." And she ruled that the statements were opinion, and "the law is well established that statements of opinion are not actionable as defamation."
As for the religious discrimination claim, Menendez ruled that López Prater plausibly alleges that Hamline took action against her "because she was not Muslim or did not conform to the religious beliefs held by some that viewing images of the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden."
An attorney representing Hamline, Mark Berhow of Hinshaw & Culbertson, released a statement Monday night in response to the decision:
"We are encouraged that the Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims for reprisal, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and retaliation in response to our motion and, as the case progresses, look forward to demonstrating that the sole remaining claim is also without merit."
Attorneys for López Prater did not respond to a request for comment.
Reverent paintings, student offended
After being hired to teach a class on world art, López Prater showed two paintings of the Prophet Muhammad during an October 2022 class over Zoom. According to the complaint, before showing the images, López Prater warned the students she would do so.
In the judge's ruling, it was stated that it was "undisputed that both paintings were made with great reverence" for the Prophet.
After class, however, a Muslim student stayed on the video call after the other students left and "expressed outrage" about the paintings being shown and said she was offended by them.
López Prater later emailed the student saying she was sorry that the images made the student uncomfortable.
After she heard about the situation, Marcela Kostihova, the dean of Hamline's College of Liberal Arts, told López Prater "it was not a good idea" that she'd showed the images. Kostihova said there had been "a significant outcry within the Muslim Student Association as well as by Muslim faculty and staff and that Muslim staff were threatening to resign."
She recommended that López Prater apologize in class.
During another conversation with the dean, López Prater expressed concern that the situation may have damaged her career and "explained that excluding Muslim paintings of the Prophet Muhammad would be discriminatory because it would privilege the religious views of Muslims who object to viewing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad over those of Muslims who do not object."
Contract not renewed
During class on Oct. 11, López Prater apologized to her students and asked if anyone wanted to speak about it further. Nobody did. She said she'd be open to having a conversation about it outside of class.
On Oct. 24, López Prater was told that a class she'd been scheduled to teach during the spring semester was being canceled and that her contract would not be renewed.
On Nov. 7, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence David Everett sent an email to employees and students speaking about the showing of the paintings.
"Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic," he wrote. "While the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline's Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable."
The outrage against López Prater snowballed with a staff editorial in Hamline's student newspaper decrying her actions and a "community conversation" where the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called her display of the paintings Islamophobic.
Hamline and academic freedom
Since López Prater's dismissal, Hamline has been criticized for violating the instructor's academic freedom.
This spring, Hamline President Fayneese Miller announced that she would retire next year, acknowledging that "we've had some trying times."
But she defended the university's record on academic freedom, and reiterated the point at a symposium Tuesday entitled "Free Speech at the Crossroads: A Minnesota Dialogue."
During a period set aside for audience questions toward the end of Tuesday's opening session, Miller took the microphone to emphasize at length that the university was fully committed to academic freedom.
Miller did not mention López Prater by name, nor the lawsuit against the university, but alluded to the events leading up to the professor's departure as she praised the symposium's focus while noting the importance of respecting the state's large Muslim population.
"I just want to make sure we all leave here with one understanding, which is the reason why Hamline University is so excited about this conversation, absolutely thrilled and delighted about the conversation," Miller said. "No academic freedom got violated here at Hamline University. Absolutely none. None. Can't say that enough."
Miller said there's a disconnect between "academic freedom, academic responsibility and who is sitting in our classrooms."
"We need to make sure there's room in our classrooms for all people's perspectives to be included, so they're not excluded in the classroom," Miller said. "And we can do that by how we teach the material, not that we exclude the material."
Frederick Melo contributed to this report.