ST PAUL, Minn. — An adjunct professor fired from Hamline University in St. Paul has filed a religious discrimination and defamation lawsuit against the school.
Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP, announced Tuesday that the firm is filing the suit on behalf of Dr. Erika López Prater, who was let go from her position at the university after she displayed an artistic depiction of the Prophet Muhammad during an Oct. 6, 2022 lecture.
"Hamline’s actions have caused significant damage to Dr. López Prater. In the near term, she has lost the income from her adjunct position. She alleges she also suffered significant emotional distress due to her mistreatment by Hamline. In the long term, Dr. López Prater alleges that her personal and professional reputation, and her future employment prospects, have been irreparably harmed by Hamline’s conduct," Fabian May & Anderson wrote in a press release.
The firm added that total damages sought are "well in excess of $350,000" since Hamline's statements are "likely career ending."
In an interview with the New York Times on Jan. 8, Prater said she took precautions before showing her online class a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
According to court documents filed in Ramsey County, Prater's course syllabus included the following disclaimer:
"I aim to affirm students of all religious observances and beliefs in the content of the course. Additionally, this course will introduce students to several religious traditions and the visual cultures they have produced historically. This includes showing and discussing both representational and non-representational depictions of holy figures (for example, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha). If you have any questions or concerns about either missing class for a religious observance or the visual content that will be presented, please do not hesitate to contact me."
The complaint says the syllabus was shared with Allison Baker, the department chair of Hamline's Art and Digital Media Department, who "did not make any changes to López Prater’s statement in the syllabus and did not express any concern about López Prater displaying depictions of the Prophet Muhammad."
Documents also allege that Hamline made no changes to the statement in López Prater’s syllabus and that López Prater distributed the syllabus to students and reviewed it with her class. It was also posted online.
On the day the images were shown in class, López Prater told the Times that she warned students right before the painting was shown in case they wanted to leave.
After a student in her class filed a complaint, López Prater was let go from her position. That student, Aram Wedatalla, is also president of the Muslim Student Association at Hamline University.
“I’m 23 years old, I’ve never seen a picture of a prophet. Never in my whole life” Wedatalla said at a recent press conference hosted by the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It hurts; it breaks my heart to stand here to tell people and beg people to understand me. To feel what I feel.”
López Prater's firing ignited a nationwide debate over academic free speech and freedom of religion.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR Minnesota, said the image was very hurtful to the Muslim community. “'Islamophobia can manifest in a variety of ways, such as the recent incident at Hamline University,” said Hussein.
Though on Jan. 13, the national CAIR chapter released its own statement, writing in a series of tweets that the organization had seen "no evidence that a former Hamline University professor acted with bigoted intent or engaged in Islamophobia when she analyzed a medieval painting depicting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that was drawn hundreds of years after his passing by a Muslim artist."
In the days following her dismissal, a number of academic leaders and organizations have issued their support for López Prater, including UMN emeritus professor Catherine Asher, who specializes in Islamic Art.
“They're historically well known and extraordinarily important,” said Asher. “The manuscripts she showed from the 14th century is the first world history and its significance should not be underestimated.”
Edward Curtis is Chair of Liberal Arts and a professor of religious studies at Indiana University.
He told KARE 11 that it is common practice in classes similar to López Prater's to show similar art depicting the prophet.
“There could have been much more dialogue, leading towards a solution that did not result in the unfair firing of a professor,” said Curtis. “But that also took seriously the hurt feelings of students.”
In response to the national conversation surrounding the incident and subsequent news of the lawsuit Tuesday, Hamline University Board of Trustees Chair Ellen Watters and University President Fayneese Miller released a statement saying the university will host "two major conversations" that focus on "academic freedom and student care" and "academic freedom and religion."
The full statement can be read below:
Hamline University is the epicenter of a public conversation about academic freedom and students with diverse religious beliefs.
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.
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. How this duality is exemplified on our campuses, especially in the current multicultural environment in which we live, is an exciting, robust, and honest conversation for academics, intellectuals, students, and the public to have.
In order to facilitate this debate, Hamline University, over the coming months, will host two major conversations. One will focus on academic freedom and student care. The other will focus on academic freedom and religion.
We have learned much from the many scholars, religious leaders, and thinkers from around the world on the complexity of displaying images of the Prophet Muhammad. We have come to more fully understand the differing opinions that exist on this matter within the Muslim community. And, we welcome the opportunity, along with our students and the broader community, to listen and learn more. We, like our higher education partners, want to do more to show that academic freedom and student support are both integral to the very fabric of who we are.
Finally, it was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students–care does not “supersede” academic freedom, the two co-exist. Faculty have the right to choose what and how they teach. Faculty care for and about students. This is certainly the case at Hamline University, a place where we pride ourselves on knowing the names of all of our students.
Higher education is about learning and growing. We have certainly learned and continue to grow as we generate new knowledge to share with all of our Hamline community.
Please join us at one or both of our upcoming events as we engage in critical conversation about academic freedom.
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