In November 2022, Hamline University rescinded an invitation to Dr. Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor of art history, to teach in the spring semester, after a student complained about López Prater’s decision to display a painting of the Prophet Mohammed in a world art class.
In the class syllabus, López Prater had warned students that some of the art displayed would depict religious figures including the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha, and invited students to reach out to her with concerns. She likewise warned students during the online class, inviting anyone who might feel uncomfortable seeing an image of the Prophet to sign off several minutes before she displayed it. None of the students left. However, after the lecture, a student reportedly remained on the video call and complained to López Prater about her displaying the images; the student was reportedly unreceptive to López Prater’s explanations about the educational value of the images. López Prater reportedly made further efforts to reconcile with the student and explain her educational decisions, to which the student was unresponsive. Instead, the student shared the email with others, and subsequently complained to the administration.
A member of the administration later reportedly informed López Prater that there had been an outcry about the incident among the school’s Muslim students and faculty, and recommended that López Prater issue an apology, which she did, on October 11, 2022. Nevertheless, she was informed on October 24, 2022 that a previously extended offer to teach art history in the spring 2023 semester was being rescinded.
In a letter addressing the incident, Fayneese Miller, Hamline’s president, and David Everett, the associate vice president for inclusive excellence, stated that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”
In response, López Prater sued Hamline for breach of contract, religious discrimination, and defamation.
Following a national outcry in response to the incident, Hamline reversed its position, issuing a statement that read in part: “Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep. 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. 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.”
As of this report, López Prater had withdrawn her breach of contract claim, but continued pursuing claims for religious discrimination and defamation, among other claims, in state court.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the effective termination of a professor in retaliation for the responsible exercise of the right to academic freedom. While students have the right to raise concerns about their professors’ classroom behavior, universities are obligated to protect academic freedom, and must refrain from actions which punish legitimate teaching activity. Universities should likewise establish and follow clear guidelines for responding to student complaints, which are fully protective of academic freedom and related rights and university values.