‘Sometimes We Misstep’: University Walks Back Comments After Firing Professor For Showing A Picture Of Muhammad

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Alexa Schwerha Contributor
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A Minnesota university walked back its claim that a professor showing a painting of Islamic prophet Muhammad was Islamophobic Tuesday night after the professor sued for religious discrimination and defamation.

Hamline University declined to renew Dr. Erika López Prater’s contract after a student complained that Prater showed an unveiled portrait of Muhammad during an Islamic art lesson. Hamline said that Prater’s actions were “Islamophobic” in a campus-wide email in response to the complaint, which Prater alleged caused her “emotional distress” and hurt her professional and personal reputation, according to the lawsuit. (RELATED: University Violated Accreditation Status By Ignoring Academic Freedom, Watchdog Alleges)

The university’s comments could “potentially resul[t] in her inability to obtain a tenure track position at any institution of higher education,” the lawsuit reads. Prater is seeking damages for alleged violations of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, breach of contract and emotional distress.

Hamline issued a statement Tuesday evening, obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation, which said its “Islamophobic” claim was “flawed.”

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,” the statement read. “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.”

President and Board Joint Statement 011723 by Alexa Schwerha on Scribd

Several free speech watchdogs were quick to defend Prater in the name of academic freedom, the DCNF previously reported. Hamline administrators argued that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom” in its email addressing the complaint.

“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,” the statement read. “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.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a statement on Jan. 13, shared with the DCNF, which explained that there is “no evidence” the lesson was Islamophobic.

“Although we strongly discourage showing visual depictions of the Prophet, we recognize that professors who analyze ancient paintings for an academic purpose are not the same as Islamophobes who show such images to cause offense,” CAIR stated. “Based on what we know up to this point, we see no evidence that Professor Erika López Prater acted with Islamophobic intent or engaged in conduct that meets our definition of Islamophobia.”

Hamline University will consider how to balance academic freedom with student care and religion through conversations, it shared.

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,” the statement read. “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.”

Prater’s attorney did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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