A former art instructor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in class has sued Hamline University, saying administrators defamed her and reneged on an offer to teach in the spring semester.
Attorneys for Erika López Prater announced Tuesday that she had sued the university for defamation, religious discrimination and breach of contract, among other things. Less than two hours later, the university's president and board chair said in a joint statement that they had "learned much" about Islam and that the previous decision to describe the incident as Islamophobic was "flawed."
The St. Paul private college found itself at the center of a painful debate over academic freedom and religious tolerance this month as news of the university's decision not to renew López Prater's contract spread across the globe. Instructors rallied around López Prater, saying the university's decisions could have a chilling effect on professors who teach controversial material. A prominent local Muslim organization supported administrators, saying they had to act to protect students with diverse religious beliefs while a national Muslim group said it didn't consider the teacher's conduct wrong.
Scholars and religious leaders have sometimes disagreed about whether Islam permits images of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims argue that the images are strictly prohibited to avoid idolization. Others have images of the prophet in their homes.
During a class in October, López Prater showed two centuries-old artworks that depict the prophet receiving revelations from the angel Gabriel that would later form the basis for the Qur'an. López Prater said she provided a disclaimer in the syllabus for the course and spent "at least a couple minutes" preparing students for the images. One of her students, Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, said she heard the professor give a "trigger warning," wondered what it was for "and then I looked and it was the prophet."
In the lawsuit, attorneys for López Prater said she shared her syllabus with a department chair and others at Hamline University and no one raised concerns about her decision to show the images.
"Students viewing the online class had ample warning about the paintings," wrote attorney David Redden. "Students viewing the online class also had ample opportunity to turn away from their computer screens, turn their screens away from them, turn off their screens, or even leave their rooms before the paintings were displayed."
Redden wrote that a department leader initially told López Prater "it sounded like you did everything right."
A few weeks later, she received an email informing her that the university would no longer offer the spring semester online art history class she'd been in discussions about teaching. In early November, the university's Office of Inclusive Excellence sent a campus email saying actions taken in her class were "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic" — a statement disputed by some Muslim scholars and advocacy groups.
Redden wrote that Hamline University had made López Prater a "pariah," quashed dissent from others seeking to support her, and allowed people to defame her in the student newspaper and during a "Community Conversation" event discussing Islamophobia in December. He accused the university of violating its own policy on academic freedom and of discriminating against López Prater "because she is not Muslim, because she did not conform her conduct to the specific beliefs of a Muslim sect, and because she did not conform her conduct to the religion-based preferences of Hamline that images of Muhammad not be shown to any Hamline student."
Throughout it all, Redden wrote, López Prater "suffered immediate, severe, and lasting emotional distress, including various physical manifestations of that distress."
The university declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday night. In a joint statement, university President Fayneese Miller and board Chair Ellen Watters didn't discuss the lawsuit but said the flurry of news coverage had prompted them to "review and re-examine" the university's response.
"Hamline is a multi-cultural, multi-religious community that has been a leader in creating space for civil conversations. Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep," the pair wrote.
"In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term 'Islamophobic' was therefore flawed," they wrote. "We strongly support academic freedom for all members of the Hamline community. We also believe that academic freedom and support for students can and should co-exist."
The university said it will host two events in the coming months: One will focus on academic freedom and student care, and the other on academic freedom and religion.