Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
If you want to be part of a free society, you have to be willing to be offended. Of course, most people take care not to offend others if they can help it, because most wish to be effective in their actions and communications. It's a perverse truism that offense is taken at least as much as it's given.
That was demonstrated last fall at Hamline University. Erika López Prater, an adjunct instructor teaching an online class on art history, displayed well-known images of the Prophet Muhammad. Word has been that she gave students ample warning, told them why the images were relevant and allowed them to absent themselves if uncomfortable, because she knew many Muslims don't believe Muhammad should be visually depicted.
Two further things are known — that a Muslim student in the class saw the image to her apparent surprise and complained, and that López Prater has been absented from subsequent work at Hamline, her contract unrenewed.
Less clear is correlation. On Thursday, administrators at the school, including its president, Fayneese Miller, told members of the Star Tribune Editorial Board that the story told in media outlets near and far is incomplete. More on that in a bit. They also argued that the instructor wasn't fired, since she taught out the semester; that her status as not fired but not returning was unrelated to showing the photos, even though they think she didn't handle the situation as well as portrayed, and that Hamline is still a school where academic freedom is honored.
Earlier communications, though, implied both a connection and a warning to others. Calling actions in the class "undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic" — as the school's vice president for inclusive excellence, David Everett, did in an email to all employees — will tend to have that effect.
As last week neared an end, those directly involved in the saga all seemed to be doubling down.
The administrators stood firmly behind their conviction that academic freedom has limits. López Prater told Minnesota Public Radio that she is exploring legal action. The student, Aram Wedatalla, appeared at a news conference with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to relate how she felt being exposed to the images for the first time in her life. The executive director of that chapter, Jaylani Hussein, said that "in reality a trigger warning is an indication that you are going to do harm," though some Muslims have expressed support for López Prater.
The most gratifying part of the controversy has been the vigorous public response in defense of academic freedom. Silent acceptance would have dismayed. We won't call criticism of the school universal, but if things were analogous to a football game, we'd say that Hamline has very poor field position.
So let's go back to what administrators told us on Thursday.
Miller, along with Patti Klein-Kersten, dean of students, and Marcela Kostihova, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, told Editorial Board members that López Prater's warning to students wasn't as clear as the narrative suggests, nor was her sensitivity to the complaint afterward. They also said images appeared onscreen before students could react and stayed there for many minutes.
We lack the evidence to parse the truth. When we asked to see the class video, Hamline declined. The matter, in any case, is beyond simple remedy. But let's suspend judgment for the moment and accept the possibility that the story isn't as straightforward as has been told. There remains the question of what Hamline really thinks about academic freedom, and what any school should.
Academic freedom is the concept that scholars should be able to teach without fear of reprisal for the ideas they convey. As is evident in a counterpoint by Miller also published by Star Tribune Opinion, the school balances that on a spectrum against students' comfort with encountering ideas — and feels that the line in this era must move closer to comfort.
That atmosphere has allowed at least one student reacting to the current controversy to come to a binary interpretation: "Hamline teaches us it doesn't matter the intent, the impact is what matters."
Well, intent matters in the law — whether a homicide is manslaughter or murder one, for instance. It matters in any practice, whether an unwanted outcome is inadvertent or negligent or malicious.
And it matters in learning. Concern over creating discomfort for some students — or fear of the consequences of being perceived to have done so — cannot be allowed to result in teachers withholding information from the rest.
Let's not make this too easy, though.
If you were a Christian, and the subject of a class on governance was the controversy over National Endowment for the Arts funding for a 1987 depiction of Jesus on the cross in a jar of urine, would you object to being shown the image?
What if it were a media class about the musician Sinéad O'Connor tearing up a picture of the pope on national television in 1992?
Or — taking both examples beyond a theoretical classroom — did you then or do you in retrospect support the acts of expression themselves?
These aren't exact parallels — the images of Muhammad that López Prater showed were not degrading — but they're versions of a bigger question at the core of many legal and cultural disputes: When can any religion set terms for the whole of society? Theory and practice on this diverge.
Amid the debate, Miller writes in her counterpoint that the matter "has escalated to the point where I, members of my executive staff, other campus staff and, most sadly, one of our students now receive daily threats of violence." If any of you reading are a source of those threats, stop. Society has to be able to have difficult discussions without unchecked emotion.
On the matter of giving offense, this newspaper's retired editorial cartoonist, Steve Sack, had a philosophy instilled in him by former Minneapolis Tribune editor Charles Bailey: Never hesitate to make people angry with your work, but know why.
The adjunct professor at Hamline knew why. Administrators let it get murky. And now an otherwise fine school is national news for the wrong reasons.