Protests denounce firing, slander attack against art teacher by Hamline officials

By Edwin Fruit
February 20, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS — Former Hamline University art teacher Erika López Prater sued the St. Paul college for defamation Jan. 17, after authorities slandered her as “Islamophobic” and hounded her from her job. The college’s assault was met with protest from writers association PEN America and some 400 faculty members across the country who demanded the college renew her contract.

During an Oct. 6 online class on Islamic art, López Prater showed students a copy of the 1307 painting “The Prophet Muhammad Receiving Revelation from the Angel Gabriel,” by an artist from Tabriz, Iran. It is considered a masterpiece. She also showed “Muhammad, Shown with a Veiled Face and Halo, at Mount Hira” by a Turkish artist from the 16th century, to contrast different Muslim portrayals of the prophet. In the syllabus, López Prater wrote that if any student was offended by the material they could skip the class and she would work with them to complete the course. None asked to do so.

Nonetheless, one student complained about the class to Dean Marcela Kostihova. The dean told López Prater there had been an outcry from the Muslim Student Association and college employees were threatening to quit. She urged López Prater to apologize in front of her class. Fearful of the consequences of not doing so, López Prater complied.

On Oct. 24 López Prater received an email saying the college had withdrawn its offer for her to teach in the spring. “López Prater was prepared to finish out her World Art course and leave Hamline,” wrote her attorneys. But Hamline “had other ideas.”

Its associate vice president of inclusive excellence, David Everett, then sent an email to every single Hamline student and all its employees stating that an incident at an unspecified class was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” The defamatory comments were “tied to López Prater,” say her attorneys, and “have since been published far and wide,” including, at the instigation of the college administration, in Hamline’s student newspaper, the Oracle.

Carleton meeting defends free speech

Many have come forward to support López Prater in her fight. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it has seen “no evidence” that professor Erika López Prater “engaged in Islamophobic conduct.”

Several hundred came to a Jan. 17 program at Carleton College in Northfield entitled, “What Happens When Students Are Offended by Course Materials? Teaching Islam and Islamic Art in the Age of Inclusion.”

Flyer for Jan. 17 debate at Carleton College, attended by several hundred, following firing, false accusation of “Islamophobia” against teacher Erika López Prater by St. Paul Hamline University.
Flyer for Jan. 17 debate at Carleton College, attended by several hundred, following firing, false accusation of “Islamophobia” against teacher Erika López Prater by St. Paul Hamline University.

The panel included Ahoo Najafian, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Macalaster College; Alexander Jabbari, assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota; Mark Berkson, professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Hamline; and López Prater.

“As a Muslim, I am offended by what the administration did to López Prater,” said Amna Khalid, an associate history professor at Carleton, who chaired the meeting.

At the start of the meeting, a statement was read by the head of the Muslim Students Association at Carleton agreeing with Hamline’s attempts to smear López Prater.

Berkson said teachers cannot base their instruction on whether a student feels uncomfortable about a topic. “If a student does not believe in evolution, does that mean that this should not be taught?” he asked. Khalid said that across the country close to 75% of all instruction is taught by adjunct or contract teachers like López Prater, who have no right to appeal a dismissal.

Berkson had sent a letter opposing the administration’s action to the Oracle, but the editors took it down after posting it at first. He said his letter was only put back up on the website after numerous complaints.

Berkson joined a panel at a Jan. 28 Militant Labor Forum here with Kevin Dwire, speaking for the Socialist Workers Party. Berkson walked through the attacks on López Prater.

Berkson had attended a Hamline meeting about the incident that was addressed by Jaylani Hussein, head of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations chapter. Hussein called for the images López Prater had shown in class to be banned and pointedly referred to the 2015 killings of the editors of Charlie Hebdo in France.

Berkson pointed out that when he tried to express opposition to the college’s treatment of López Prater, an administrator tried to silence him telling him, “That’s enough.”

“We have to defend democratic rights, which are under attack not only on the campuses,” Dwire said, “but on the working class.” He pointed to “rulings that the coal miners union has to pay the company for its losses during an ongoing strike in Alabama and the Biden administration and Congress banning the right to strike of rail workers” as examples.

“Freedom of speech is what we need. If you ban any one group, then you are next,” Dwire said.

López-Prater has now accepted a teaching position at Macalaster College in St. Paul. Since announcing her lawsuit against Hamline, college authorities admitted that their claim she was Islamophobic was “flawed.”