A Hamline University art history instructor who was fired for showing images of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in class has filed a lawsuit against the school, her attorneys announced Tuesday.
The adjunct instructor, Dr. Erika López Prater, alleges in her lawsuit that university administrators, primarily vice president of inclusive excellence David Everett, knowingly and publicly defamed her by calling her actions “undeniably Islamophobic.”
Many Muslims, but not all, believe their religion forbids visual depictions of Muhammad.
“At the time his November 7 email was sent, Everett and Hamline knew and recklessly disregarded the following facts: a) the images López Prater displayed were not created out of any prejudice toward Islam or Muslims; b) López Prater displayed the images for a proper educational purpose and within a proper artistic and historical context; c) López Prater did not display the paintings out of any prejudice toward Islam or Muslims; d) López Prater provided the students ample warning, both in her syllabus and during class, that the paintings would be shown, while explaining the educational purpose for doing so; and e) showing these images plainly fell within López Prater’s contractual right to academic freedom,” the lawsuit explains.
The lawsuit also reveals that López Prater informed her supervisor, Allison Baker, that she would be displaying the images. Her supervisor did not express any concern, the lawsuit says.
“López Prater also submitted the syllabus to Hamline. Hamline made no changes to López Prater’s statement and did not express any concern about López Prater displaying depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as part of the class,” the lawsuit adds.
López Prater was invited to return to teach a class in the spring semester. “My students in your classes have said nothing but wonderful things so we would really love to have you back in the spring,” Baker wrote in an email, according to the lawsuit.
“Despite the multiple apologies, on or about October 24, 2022, Baker notified López Prater that the class López Prater had been scheduled to teach during the spring semester was being cancelled and that López Prater’s contract would not be renewed,” the lawsuit explains.
The lawsuit alleges that López Prater suffered “immediate, severe, and lasting emotional distress” because of Hamline’s “false and defamatory” statements about her.
One of the few groups to defend Hamline was Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose executive director, Jaylani Hussein, led a Dec. 8 “community conversation” on campus, during which he made “several defamatory statements” about López Prater, the lawsuit alleges.
Dr. Mark Berkson, chair of the school’s Department of Religion, attempted to “question Hussein’s false and discriminatory premises,” according to the lawsuit.
“Hussein angrily responded to Berkson, loudly speaking over him in open contempt, and angrily equated showing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to the crime of pedophilia, as well as Nazism and white supremacy. Hussein also alluded to the possibility of a violent Islamic response, pointing to the 2015 murders at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France, where several people were killed in response to the publication of satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit says university administrators expressed “support and agreement” with Hussein’s comments and shared a video of the event in an email to all employees.
CAIR’s national chapter later distanced itself from the local affiliate, saying it recognizes that “professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense.”
Until Tuesday, Hamline adamantly refused to admit any wrongdoing in its treatment of López Prater. However, Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters and President Fayneese Miller acknowledged that their use of the term “Islamophobic” was “flawed” in a statement released shortly after the lawsuit was filed.
“There have been many communications, articles and opinion pieces that have caused us to review and re-examine our actions. 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,” they said.
Hamline is also facing a complaint filed with its accreditor.