Lawyers for an assistant art professor said on Tuesday she will sue the University of Minnesota that fired her after a Muslim student objected to a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in an international art course. The university has admitted making a “misstep” and plans to hold public talks about academic freedom.
In her lawsuit, Erica Lopez-Prater alleges that Hamlin University — a small private school in St. Paul — subjected her to religious discrimination and defamation, and damaged her professional and personal reputation.
“Among other things, Hamlin, through her department, has referred to Dr. Lopez-Prater’s actions as “undeniably anti-Islam,” her lawyers said in a statement. “Comments like these, which have now been reported in news stories around the world, will follow Dr. Lopez. Prater throughout her career, which may result in her being unable to secure a tenure-track position at any institution of higher learning.”
In Minnesota, a lawsuit can be initiated by filing a summons and complaint with the party being sued. Lawyers for Lopez-Prater said the lawsuit was filed with Hamlin University on Tuesday and will soon go to court.
Hamlin President Fiennes Miller and Board of Trustees Chairman Elaine Waters issued a joint statement Tuesday saying that “recent communications, articles and opinion pieces” have prompted the school to “review and re-examine our work.”
“Like all organizations, we sometimes make mistakes,” the statement read. “In order to hear from and support our Muslim students, language was used that did not reflect our feelings about academic freedom. Based on everything we had learned, we decided that our use of the term ‘anti-Islam’ was therefore wrong.”
The statement did not address the lawsuit, but said the university strongly supports academic freedom, which must coexist with student support. The university plans to hold two public talks in the coming months, one about academic freedom and student welfare and the other about academic freedom and religion.
In October, López-Prater exhibited a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on Islamic art. For many Muslims, the visual depiction of Muhammad violates their faith, which López-Prater knew.
According to the lawsuit, Lopez-Prater’s curriculum included a note that students would see pictures of religious figures, including Muhammad. The curriculum also included a demonstration of working with students uncomfortable with viewing these images.
She also warned the class immediately before showing Mohammed’s photography. She said in media interviews last week that her goal is to teach students the “rich diversity” of attitudes towards such images.
Lopez-Prater said she and the department chair had been discussing teaching her a new course, but after the student complained she was told “her services are no longer needed.”
Miller, Hamline’s president, said earlier that the professor’s contract was not renewed after the fall semester.
The lawsuit alleges that rather than admit that López-Prater displayed the images for a proper academic purpose, the university chose to force upon all students and staff the objecting student’s religious opinion that no one should view images of the Prophet.
On Friday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim civil rights organization, questioned the assertion that Lopez-Prater’s behavior was anti-Islam. The group said that professors who analyze images of the Prophet Muhammad for academic purposes are not the same as “Islamophobes who display such images to cause offense”.
At a press conference last week organized by supporters of the Lopez-Prater shooting, the student who made the complaint said she did not see a picture of the Prophet Muhammad until the October semester.
“It breaks my heart that I have to stand here telling people that there is something anti-Islamic and that something hurts all of us, not just me,” said Aram Wadatala, head of the Hamelin Muslim School Assn.
The university said on Tuesday that it has learned a great deal about the complexity of displaying images of the Prophet Muhammad and recognizes that differing opinions on the issue exist within the Muslim community.
“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,” the statement said.