The next Oberlin? Dumped professor sues college for calling her Muhammad depiction 'Islamophobic'

Professor Erika Lopez Prater is seeking $350,000 in damages.

Published: January 18, 2023 5:46pm

Updated: January 18, 2023 11:36pm

A small liberal arts college with social-justice roots. A community member accused of career-ending discrimination against a minority. And an administration that repeatedly trumpets those accusations, which were made by student activists and hinged on an extreme interpretation of a largely undisputed factual record. 

Those circumstances cost Ohio's Oberlin College over $36 million in damages, interest and legal fees last year in a defamation lawsuit brought by a family-owned bakery accused of racial profiling for tackling a black student shoplifter.

Hamline University might be the next Oberlin.

Art history professor Erika Lopez Prater sued the Minnesota liberal arts school Wednesday for publicly defaming her as a bigot and not renewing her contract after a Muslim student complained that Prater showed depictions of holy figures including Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

Administrators' initial statements suggested Prater's opt-out lesson was responsible for her departure, with diversity chief Davis Everett saying "it was decided" that she would leave "in lieu of this incident." 

Everett called her lesson "undeniably ... Islamophobic," and  Dean of Students Patti Kersten called it "an act of intolerance" — each campus-wide statement picked up by international media. 

The Muhammad depictions were noted in the syllabus — approved by art department Chairwoman Allison Baker and Hamline itself, with no concern about those depictions — as well as at the start of that day's virtual class, with no student pushback, according to the suit.

The university is also liable for defamation for hosting a subsequent "community conversation" in which a local Muslim leader compared showing students Muslim-commissioned depictions of Muhammad to showing them "pedophilia art" or promoting Nazism, Prater says.

The Oberlin and Hamline lawsuits each were filed in state courts, and Prater makes several claims under state laws including the Minnesota Human Rights Act and Whistleblower Act. She's demanding at least $350,000 in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages for each act and tort claims.

Prater alleges breach of contract for violating her academic freedom, guaranteed in the faculty handbook, and yanking back the spring class Baker offered her before the Oct. 6 Muhammad lesson.

Administrators' comments will follow Prater "throughout her career, potentially resulting in her inability to obtain a tenure track position at any institution of higher education," say her lawyers at Fabian May & Anderson, who also say Hamline had yet to retract its characterization of her lesson.

Hours later, a joint statement from school President Fayneese Miller and Board of Trustees Chairwoman Ellen Watters said the "Islamophobic" characterization was "flawed," citing what they've learned about "the complexity of displaying images" of Muhammad. However, the statement didn't mention the classroom incident or even allude to the professor.

(The Council on American-Islamic Relations sided with Prater over its own Minnesota affiliate.)

"Hamline’s statement has no effect on the claims in the lawsuit. Lasting damage has already been done to our client," David Redden, one of Prater's lawyers, wrote in an email. He said the firm wasn't looking at the Oberlin case as a model for its own.

"It is becoming more common for universities to fund long and drawn out litigation at considerable cost," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told Just the News when asked what lessons Hamline might draw from Oberlin. Similar disputes "were often handled informally by universities in prior years."

Prater's suit states Hamline expected she would "conform to the specific beliefs of a Muslim sect" and took "severe adverse employment actions," constituting religious discrimination under MHRA, when she "instead showed two world-renowned artistically and historically significant images of Muhammad" in class.

The artworks show the "broader phenomenon within Abrahamic traditions of a contested and inconsistent relationship to depicting the divine," according to the suit, which states the pieces are also taught in Muslim-majority countries.

But the university "adopt[ed] and enforc[ed]" the view of Prater's student who filed the complaint, Muslim Student Association President Aram Wedatalla, because the prophet's image is "forbidden for Muslims to look upon," as Everett and Miller put it in an email to the Hamline community.

The duo said "respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom," which prompted scholars nationwide to note historic and ongoing disagreements within Islam about depicting Muhammad. 

One such scholar was Hamline religion department Chairman Mark Berkson, whose essay was published by The Oracle student newspaper. Shortly after Hamline scolded Berkson for getting involved, The Oracle took down the essay, the suit states.

The editors said their decision was intended to "minimiz[e] harm," but reposted the essay last week, saying they failed their own standards.

Department Chairwoman Baker offered Prater a contemporary art class in spring 2023, saying students had "nothing but wonderful things" to say about her teaching, and stuck by the professor two weeks later when Wedatalla initially confronted Prater, the suit claims.

That changed when Wedatalla went to College of Liberal Arts Dean Marcela Kostihova, who told Prater that showing the artwork had been compared to "sh***ing on Islam" and using the n-word. Muslim staff were also threatening to resign, the dean allegedly said.

"Despite the multiple apologies" Prater made to Wedatalla and the whole class, Baker told the professor, "We need to make a spring semester change" and that her promised class would be canceled. (Miller's defiant Jan. 11 statement punted the non-renewal decision to "the unit level.")

The turn of events led Prater to plan to leave "quietly" after her current class finished, but "Hamline and Everett had other ideas" by "publicly defaming" her repeatedly in campus communications, including the school-funded Oracle.

Though administrators and the Oracle didn't name Prater in their denunciations, she was the "only art historian teaching the only art history class that semester," the suit states. "Anyone in the world with time and interest could easily" identify her by consulting the university's online course listings, as The American Spectator did Jan. 5.

Hamline "maximized" Prater's emotional distress, which also had "physical manifestations," by announcing she wouldn't come back next semester while her current class was still going, the suit also states.

The university didn't answer Just the News queries for its response to the lawsuit. It provided the Wednesday night joint statement, which followed the law firm's announcement, without mentioning the lawsuit. 

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