SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Hamline University is asking a federal judge to toss a lawsuit filed by the former adjunct professor who lost her job and was called "Islamophobic" by school officials after showing her art history class a painting of the Prophet Muhammad considered a masterpiece.
Many Muslims consider displaying images of Muhammad to be sacrilegious while many others believe the context of the display is important.
Erika López Prater, the former adjunct professor who is an art historian with a Master of Arts and doctorate in contemporary art history, sued Hamline for religious discrimination, reprisal and defamation after the school rescinded its plan for her to teach the following semester.
U.S. District Judge Kate Menendez will listen to arguments in Hamline's motion to dismiss the lawsuit on May 17.
In October during a virtual class, López Prater showed her art history class "The Prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel," a painting her lawsuit states was made "by a Muslim for Muslims."
Despite warning the students before displaying it and warning them at the outset of the semester that the image would be shown, a Muslim student, Aram Wedatalla complained afterward to López Prater and a Hamline administrator.
The next month, David Everett, Hamline's vice president for inclusive excellence, wrote in an email to staff and students that "Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic."
After the New York Times shone a national spotlight on the controversy, it turned into a discussion of academic freedom, with many people and organizations defending López Prater and criticizing Hamline.
Breaking with the opinion of the Minnesota chapter, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the national deputy director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations said, "An academic studying an ancient depiction of [Muhammad] in a classroom without bigoted intent — that would not qualify as Islamophobia."
In her lawsuit, López Prater argued the damage had been done and the school had inflicted emotional distress.
In its motion to dismiss the suit, Hamline argues that López Prater's allegations, while "interesting or debatable," don't fit the legal standard of a civil lawsuit claim.
Concerning religious discrimination, Hamline argues it doesn't fit because school administrators did not know López Prater's religious beliefs.
Hamline argues statements of opinion are not actionable under defamation claims.
"Terms like 'Islamophobia,' 'homophobic,' 'racist,' or 'Nazi,' without more, have generally been found to be nonactionable expressions of opinion and/or rhetorical hyperbole," Hamline's attorneys write.
And if the judge disagrees, Hamline argues that López Prater is a limited-purpose public figure, in which defamation must be proven to a higher standard.
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