ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - The former Hamline University art professor who lost her job after showing paintings depicting Muhammad, sparking controversy among Muslim students, is now bringing a lawsuit against the university.
The attorneys for Dr. Erika Lopez Prater, with the employment law firm Fabian May and Anderson, announced the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon. The attorneys say "Hamline’s actions and statements may have constituted religious discrimination, defamation, and other violations of law."
"Hamline’s actions have caused significant damage to Dr. López Prater," a statement from the attorneys reads. "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."
They are seeking compensation for lost wages, future lost wages, damages for emotional distress, and punitive damages.
"Now, whenever she applies to any of these colleges for a tenure track position, and they just happen to Google her name, it's inextricably intertwined with this allegation of Islamophobia," said Lopez Prater's attorney David Redden in a phone interview with FOX 9. "So I think it's going to have serious repercussions on her efforts to find a tenure track position and really get her career going."
When we asked about how this has affected her life, Redden said: "It has not been easy. And at times, I believe that she has felt like perhaps she's the crazy one and that everybody else sees something that she didn't, but that is not the case."
Lopez Prater's case has sparked national headlines, with much of the debate centering around academic freedom versus protecting students' religious beliefs.
What happened (according to the lawsuit)?
In the lawsuit, attorneys explain Lopez Prater, who holds a doctorate in art from the University of Minnesota and experience teaching with several other universities, was hired by Hamline as an adjunct professor for the fall 2022 term.
Lopez Prater was assigned to teach the ARTH 1100 course, which examines the "importance of art as a cultural expression across time and from a global perspective."
Things appeared to go well because, on September 21, Lopez Prater says the university extended her an offer to teach a class in the spring semester.
The lawsuit quotes an email from Lopez Prater's supervisor that reads: "My students in your classes have said nothing but wonderful things so we would really love to have you back in the Spring!"
Attorneys say Lopez Prater accepted the offer, started discussing the schedule for the class with her supervisor and the class was ultimately listed as an offering for the spring semester.
Professor shows paintings of Muhammad in class
However, that changed after October 6, when Lopez Prater showed a 14th-century painting titled "The Prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel" and 16th-century painting "Muhammad, shown with a veiled face and halo, at Mount Hira".
Both paintings depict Muhammad and attorneys say they both were "made with great reverence for Muhammad and Islam."
Attorneys say Lopez Prater took steps to avoid any harm like warning students about the class content in the syllabus and inviting them to let her know about any religious objections like depictions of religious figures.
"Students knew or should have known that images of the Prophet Muhammad would be shown during the class for educational reasons," the lawsuit reads. "Students also knew or should have known that they could avoid viewing those images if they so desired."
Student objects to depictions of Muhammad
At the end of the class, however, a Muslim student stayed on the video meeting and expressed outrage about the depictions of Muhammad.
"During their conversation, [the student] did not suggest that Lopez Prater had surprised students by showing the paintings," the lawsuit claims. "Instead, [the student] was enraged that Lopez Prater showed the images at all, to anyone. By her statements and actions, [the student] wanted to impose her specific religious views on Lopez Prater, non-Muslim students, and Muslim students who did not object to images for the Prophet Muhammad—a privilege granted to no other religion or religious belief at Hamline."
Furthermore, when Lopez Prater reached out to her supervisor about the objection, her supervisor backed her up.
"I'm sorry that happened and it sounded like you did everything right," the supervisor wrote in an email quoted in the lawsuit. "I believe in academic freedom so you have my support but thank you for the heads up."
After the student lodged a complaint with the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Lopez Prater followed up with the student by sending an apology, while pointing out she had given a warning and students an opportunity to avoid seeing the images.
University officials question the decision to show paintings
Speaking with Dean Marcela Kostihova, the lawsuit alleges Kostihova told Lopez Prater "it was not a good idea" to have used the images of Muhammad.
"Kostihova stated that a Muslim person had described Lopez Prater’s actions as 'shitting on Islam,' and said the closest analogy she could come up with was using the 'n word' in class," the lawsuit alleges. "Kostihova reported that there had been a large outcry within the Muslim Student Association as well as Muslim faculty and staff, and that Muslim staff were threatening to resign. Kostihova recommended that Lopez Prater apologizes in class."
That apology happened on October 11, the lawsuit says. When she asked the class if anyone wanted to discuss the matter further, the lawsuit says no one spoke up.
University cancels offer to bring back professor for the spring semester
On October 24, more than two weeks after the initial incident, Lopez Prater says she was notified by her supervisor that her spring class was being cancelled and her contract would not be renewed.
A message quoted in the lawsuit from her supervisor reads: "We have deeply appreciated the breadth of knowledge you have brought to Hamline this semester but as a department we need to make a spring semester change and will no longer be able to offer the contemporary art history class online as we had previously discussed,"
The lawsuit also claims the university later hired another professor to teach a class on "visual constructions of gender" in the spring, that the attorneys believe Lopez Prater would have been qualified to teach. She wasn't offered the job, however.
In a follow-up email, Lopez Prater asked if the decision was related to the fallout from class. The lawsuit claims the supervisor never responded.
University official says the professor's acts were Islamophobic
On November 7, Hamline's Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence, Dr. David Everett, put out a statement referring to Lopez Prater's actions as "Islamophobic". Attorneys cite this as the crux of the defamation claim in the lawsuit.
The statement reads: "Several weeks ago, Hamline administration was made aware of an incident that occurred in an online class. Certain actions taken in that class were undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic. While the intent behind those actions may not have been to cause harm, it came at the expense of Hamline’s Muslim community members. While much work has been done to address the issue in question since it occurred, the act itself was unacceptable.
"I want to make clear: isolated incidents such as we have seen define neither Hamline nor its ethos. They clearly do not meet community standards or expectations for behavior. We will utilize all means at our disposal, up to and including the conduct process, to ensure the emotional health, security and well-being of all members of our community."
Lopez Prater's lawsuit also points to a student newspaper editorial that backed the claims of Islamophobia. While Lopez Prater wasn't named in the editorial, or a follow-up article published the following month, Lopez Prater's attorneys assert it was pretty easy to identify her as she "was the only art historian at Hamline teaching the only art history class offered by Hamline."
Attorneys also point out that a conservative magazine, which covered the controversy outside the school, was easily able to identify her in early January.
Lawsuit says university pressured another professor who defended Lopez Prater
When Hamline's chair of the Department of Religion, Mark Berkson, defended Lopez Prater in a letter to the Oracle, the lawsuit claims "Hamline contacted Berkson and told him he should not have submitted his letter." The letter was also ultimately removed from the website.
The lawsuit also claims Berkson was again pressured by university officials to stop talking when he questioned claims made by CAIR Minnesota Executive Director Jaylani Hussein about the incident during a "community conversation".
Hamline president says professor wasn't fired over Muhammad incident
After the incident spurred national headlines including a report by FOX 9, Hamline's president issued a statement last week questioning the reporting surrounding the incident.
In the statement, President Dr. Fayneese S. Miller blasted the media for implying that Lopez Prater had been fired due to the incident. Dr. Miller pointed out Lopez Prater was allowed to finish out the semester, despite the controversy, and said the decision not to bring the adjunct professor back in the spring was made at the "unit level".
"First, I must state that the adjunct instructor hired to teach the course in art history did not ‘lose her job,’ as has been reported by some outlets," wrote Dr. Miller. "Neither was she ‘let go’ nor ‘dismissed,’ as has also been reported. And most emphatically, she has not been ‘fired,’ as has also been claimed."
"The adjunct taught the class to the end of the term, when she, like all other faculty, completed the term requirements and posted her grades," said Dr. Miller. "The decision not to offer her another class was made at the unit level and in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class."
However, later that week, the Hamline University Board of Trustees said in a separate statement it would review the situation. That statement reads: "As Minnesota’s first university we’ve learned a lot in our nearly 170 years. Recent events have required us to look deeply into our values. We are a beautifully diverse community committed to educating our students and ourselves, and sometimes that means we need to make space for hard conversations and serious self-reflection. This is one of those times. We are listening and we are learning. The Hamline University Board of Trustees is actively involved in reviewing the University’s policies and responses to recent student concerns and subsequent faculty concerns about academic freedom. Upholding academic freedom and fostering an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both required to fulfill our Mission. We will move forward together and we will be stronger for it."
In her statement, Dr. Miller says the controversial situation thrust the university into an online hate campaign, with the university facing death threats.
Hamline issues new statement after lawsuit
Tuesday evening, Hamline University issued the following statement on the heels of the lawsuit announcement. While not directly referencing the claims in the suit, university leaders admitted they made missteps during the situation.
The full statement reads:
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.
Ellen Watters, Chair, Hamline University Board of Trustees
Fayneese Miller, President, Hamline University
When we asked whether Hamline officials walking back some earlier comments changed the facts of the lawsuit, Lopez Prater's attorney said: "It certainly didn't change the facts of the lawsuit at the time when it was served on Hamline, and in terms of the effect that it may have on the lawsuit now, I see no change. The damages to my client have been done, and they're lasting."