Hamline Attacks Academic Freedom: Backtracks in Midst of Massive Lawsuit

Luke Rexing, Contributor


Over the beginning weeks of the new year there has been a growing amount of controversy surrounding a Hamline University incident that took place in the final weeks of 2022. An art and history instructor who presented a classic piece of Islamic art to her students was under fire from her colleagues and directors. During an optional exercise, a painting that depicts the Archangel Gabriel delivering to the Prophet Muhammad his first Quranic revelation was shown in her class.

Before the exercise, the professor, Erika López Prater, offered an option to leave the class if any student deemed themselves unable to view the painting for any reason. Nobody left the class. One of the students in her class complained that the image was disrespectful to her religion (despite the fact that she was allowed to leave). Aram Wedatalla, president of the Muslim Student Association, professed “as a Muslim, and a black person, I feel like I do not belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show me the same respect that I show them.”

López Prater apologized in an email to the student, but this was considered to be an inadequate response from the Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence, David Everett. In an email to the entire staff at Hamline, Everett described the display of the image as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic,” and followed up with, “it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” 

Additionally, López Prater did not receive due process within the school.

This left many in academia outraged, as it was a violation of academic freedom, a principle in which Hamline is committed to. Later, a letter to Hamline leadership was written by FIRE. This letter made several statements such as “Your egregious actions violate the rights of faculty to educate and of students to receive an education. If content has the potential to offend, will it be censored?” Further, this short excerpt demanded the reversal of course, and the reinstatement of the instructor. The letter was signed by over 400 professors from around the United States, including several from the University of Minnesota. This exposure of the administration left Hamline embarrassed, and led to them trying to hide and delete Tweets and other outcries of “exclusion” and “disrespect.” 

People continued to be polarized over the academic issue, like Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He claimed that it impacted other Muslim students around the campus, impacting their ability to finish out the semester. He referred to the image being shown in class as “blasphemy” and “an act of insult.” However, organizations that primarily focus on freedom of expression disagreed. Gregory F. Scholtz, the director of the Department of Academic Freedom, pointed to the AAUP statement “Freedom in the Classroom,” which says, “Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored” because students might be offended. Furthermore, the Muslim Public Affairs Council took concern with the incident, and under further review stood by López Prater, and also asked Hamline to reverse course, reinstate, and financially compensate her. “Professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense,” said the group, in defense of academic freedom. 

Additionally, the President of Hamline, Fayneese Miller is under fire for issuing an apology to students after the incident claiming that “It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” This statement has landed Miller in a very precarious situation, with much of the faculty now against her. In a Star Tribune article released yesterday, it was stated that 71 of the 92 faculty members voted to call on the President to resign immediately. They all agree that academic freedom is not something that can be superseded, especially among higher education, where discussion is required and censorship is catastrophic. 

So much for the role of the DEI apparatus in advancing real diversity on campus.

— Amna Khalid, Carleton College Professor of History

López Prater is now in the midst of a lawsuit against the school. She is suing based on grounds of religious discrimination and defamation. Hamline is a small private school, and faces issues of dropping enrollment and growing financial pressure. For these reasons they have attempted to raise their numbers by implementing diverse curriculums, and be more welcoming to students who have historically not been involved in higher education. They took it too far in this instance, overstepping what the purpose of their college is: education. Many agree, and Hamline has taken back many statements on the incident.

The case continues to unravel as proponents of academic freedom take action. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (now Expression), aka, FIRE, has released a new ad campaign on the side of a truck, and a way to directly email Hamline President, Fayneese Miller. This ad features the phrase “Art Censorship: Where does it stop?” Beside the expression, a picture of Michelangelo’s David is being covered with a pair of boxer briefs. A bold image to pair with the recent news. It offers a way to protect academic freedom by going to thefire.org/hamline. 

Academic freedom, freedom of speech, censorship, and traditional opinions have all been a popular concern amongst conservatives in recent years, and these concerns do not appear to be going away. As a student, it is difficult to see the veil of compassion being drawn over the eyes of many people working in academia. I see it nearly every day. This veil is exactly that. But behind it lies a deceptive, Machiavellian, and treacherous ideology that certainly will lead to something precarious. Despite this, it seems there is hope as professors across the country, and the globe, have spoken out to protect what has developed these once-great institutions. A pendulum can only swing so far one way.