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Truth vs Taboo: Hamline University controversy over Muhammad portrayal continues — First Amendment News 362

“All ethical principles are tested only by experience.” — Freeborn Garretson Hibbard, “Biography of Rev. Leonidas L. Hamline” (1881)
Hamline University sign entrance

Ken Wolter /

The controversy over religious values versus academic freedom began when Dr. Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, showed certain images in her online art history class. According to a New York Times story by Vimal Patel:

Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, said she knew many Muslims have deeply held religious beliefs that prohibit depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. So last semester for a global art history class, she took many precautions before showing a 14th-century painting of Islam’s founder.

In the syllabus, she warned that images of holy figures, including the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha, would be shown in the course. She asked students to contact her with any concerns, and she said no one did.

In class, she prepped students, telling them that in a few minutes, the painting would be displayed, in case anyone wanted to leave.

Then Dr. López Prater showed the image — and lost her teaching gig.

The painting shown in Dr. López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, “A Compendium of Chronicles,” written during the 14th century by Rashid-al-Din (1247-1318).

Shown regularly in art history classes, the painting shows a winged and crowned Angel Gabriel pointing at the Prophet Muhammad and delivering to him the first Quranic revelation. Muslims believe that the Quran comprises the words of Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.

Hamline President versus PEN America

Hamline University’s president, Fayneese S. Miller, holds to the view that respect for the religious beliefs of Muslim students “should . . . supersede academic freedom,” according to The New York Times. Miller added via a statement, “To look upon an image of the Prophet Muhammad, for many Muslims, is against their faith . . . It was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported and respected both in and out of our classrooms.”

Hamline University President Fayneese Miller
Hamline University President Fayneese Miller

PEN America, however, took sharp exception to President Miller’s position. In a press release, PEN described the dismissal as “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.”

Conflicting views

  • “The dismissal of an instructor at Hamline University on baseless charges of ‘Islamophobia’ raises concerns about freedom on campus.” — Christiane Gruber
  • “If this institution wants to value [our] students, it cannot have incidents like this happen. If somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library.” — Jaylani Hussein (Executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations)
  • “We were being asked to accept, without questioning, that what our colleague did — teaching an Islamic art masterpiece in a class on art history after having given multiple warnings — was somehow equivalent to mosque vandalism and violence against Muslims and hate speech,” said Hamline religion professor Mark Berkson. “That is what I could not stand.”

FIRE weighs in

"[Given that Hamline University is] an institution supposedly committed to free expression — including the exchange of potentially ‘unpopular and unsettling’ ideas — this is an egregious and preposterous position: What use is academic freedom if art history professors are afraid to teach and discuss the history of religious art because it might offend religious students and cost them their job?"

FIRE’s senior scholar for global expression, Sarah McLaughlin, put it clearly in her op-ed for the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Kneecapping academic freedom, as Hamline's president advocates, so that it's "superseded" by "respect" for some religious restrictions isn't just an illiberal policy. It's an unworkable one that would limit nearly any religious history, commentary and criticism should anyone in the room object."

Sarah McLaughlin
Sarah McLaughlin

Here’s a snapshot of all we’ve accomplished in our campaign so far:

  • More than 1,000 emails — and counting — have been sent to Hamline President Fayneese Miller through FIRE’s letter-writing campaign.
  • Hundreds of scholars and professors from colleges around the world have signed FIRE’s Open Faculty Letter to Hamline’s president, with more signing on every day.
  • FIRE filed a complaint with Hamline’s accreditors.
  • In addition to our Star Tribune op-ed, FIRE’s Alex Morey appeared on GBNews to shine an international spotlight on Hamline’s actions. Our perspective has also been mentioned in articles on the issue in outlets such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Barron’s, The Daily Beast, and Reason.

We aren’t stopping there. FIRE has a long and successful track record defending the rights of professors like Dr. López Prater. So while the Hamline administration hasn’t budged yet, we are working hard to generate more pressure. We can’t let Hamline get away with gutting academic freedom, and we need all the help we can get to keep up our campaign.

Questions to ponder

Professor Randall Kennedy
Professor Randall Kennedy

Is it wrong for professors to quote epithets in class or in other educational settings? In law schools, this question has arisen as to “nigger” when a professor quoted the defendants’ speech from a leading First Amendment case (Brandenburg v. Ohio) in a First Amendment class;1 a professor (one of us) quoted the facts in a rare example of a hate speech prosecution, also in a First Amendment class; a professor teaching a class on legal problem-solving quoted the word in a discussion of Facebook’s implementation of its “hate speech” policy; a professor teaching a torts class quoted the facts of a case involving emotional distress and wrongful discharge claims; a professor teaching a class about legal history quoted a statement attributed to Patrick Henry; a professor posed a hypothetical about provocation and self-defense in a criminal law class; a guest lecturer in a class on tobacco regulation displayed and quoted copies of racist advertising; and a professor at Emory University, in discussing discrimination against Native Americans, mentioned that “red nigger” and “sand nigger” had been used as slurs against them.


Fifth Circuit en banc to hear citizen journalist case

It is unusual for all 16 judges of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to convene and hear a case. This month, they will do so to consider a lawsuit involving a foul-mouthed Latina firebrand known as La Gordiloca, an unlikely citizen journalist who has upended politics as usual in her border town of Laredo.

Her case pits the First Amendment against qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields public officials from being sued individually unless they’ve violated a “clearly established” constitutional right. Although it involves a freelance, untrained citizen journalist, the case has widespread implications for journalism in Texas and beyond. 

[ . . . ]

Villarreal’s day job was supervising wrecking crews as they cleaned up tractor-trailer crash scenes, but unedited videos chronicling the dark corners of her city became her calling. Her reach exploded with the release of Facebook Live, and along the way she picked up a moniker: La Gordiloca, or “the big crazy lady.” She now has 200,000 followers watching her live-streamed crime scene videos and listening to her stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, mostly in Spanish, about everything from cooking and local restaurants to well-sourced gossip about corrupt cops and politicians.

Priscilla Villarreal
Priscilla Villarreal

It’s the latter that began turning heads around Laredo, a South Texas town of a quarter-million people. In 2017, when a local U.S. Border Patrol agent died by suicide, Villarreal learned his name from a police officer and reported it publicly before the police issued a statement. A month later, she posted the name of a family involved in a deadly car crash, again after verifying it with a Laredo police officer.

[ . . . ] 

Six months after her initial reports naming the people involved in the two incidents, Laredo police arrested Villarreal for twice breaking a little-known state law — one under which the Webb County district attorney had never before prosecuted anyone — involving soliciting or receiving information from a public servant that “has not been made public” with an intent to obtain a benefit.

Villarreal’s charges were dismissed after a judge found them “unconstitutionally vague.” In 2019, she brought a lawsuit against the Laredo Police Department, along with the city of Laredo, Webb County, the local district attorney and others who she said violated her First Amendment rights by arresting her for doing journalism. A district judge threw out the case, ruling that the officials were protected by qualified immunity because they were performing official duties.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit disagreed. 

The case is now under review by the full court sitting en banc.


Harvard denies fellowship to human rights critic of Israel

The dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School has refused to approve the fellowship of the man — hailed as  the “godfather” of human rights work — because he disagrees with his stance on Israel. 

HKS, one of the top public policy institutions in the world, has violated Harvard’s clear commitments to free expression by denying former Human Rights Watch executive Kenneth Roth a fellowship because of his purported ‘anti-Israel bias.’ As always, FIRE is neutral on Roth’s views on Israel, as well as the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has defended individuals on every side of the issue.

Harvard’s human rights experts reportedly sought Roth for the job after he announced he was stepping down as executive director of Human Rights Watch. Sushma Raman, executive director of HKS's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, invited Roth to join the center as a senior fellow. Roth and Raman agreed on terms, and the fellowship was set to be confirmed, but when it was elevated to HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf, he refused to approve the deal.

FIRE wrote Dean Elmendorf today to urge him to approve Roth’s fellowship, explaining that the school violated Roth’s expressive rights by denying him the fellowship because of his views.  

As we wrote:

But the Kennedy School undermines its laudable commitment to intellectual diversity and free inquiry when it rescinds a fellowship offer based on the candidate’s viewpoint or speech. Specifically, the Kennedy School fails to promote “an atmosphere that welcomes new ideas” when it denies a fellowship to an accomplished human rights advocate and widely-acknowledged leader in the field over a disagreement with some of his views.


YouTube: Journalist arrested for reporting

Video flashback: Christopher Hitchens on free speech

Forthcoming scholarly article: Dahlstrom on the new porn wars

The world’s largest online pornography conglomerate, MindGeek, has come under fire for the publishing of ‘rape videos,’ child pornography, and nonconsensual pornography on its website, Pornhub. As in the ‘pornography wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s, lawyers and activists have now turned to civil remedies and filed creative anti-trafficking lawsuits against MindGeek and third parties, like payment processing company Visa. These lawsuits seek not only to achieve legal accountability for online sex trafficking but also to reframe a broader array of online harms as sex trafficking.

Professor Jule Dahlstrom
Professor Julie Dahlstrom

This Article explores what these new trafficking lawsuits mean for the future regulation of the online pornography industry and the broader fight against sex trafficking. Redolent of venerable feminist debates, these emerging cases raise new questions about the scope of the First Amendment, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—which has shielded online platforms from civil liability for content uploaded by third parties—and direct and third-party liability. They open up new avenues for civil damages against online pornography websites and entities that profit from online harms. However, this Article also posits that invoking trafficking statutes too broadly can also have harmful implications for civil liberties, internet freedom, and sexual expression. Thus, it offers suggestions for the judicious evolution of trafficking frames in these realms.


More in the news

2022-2023 SCOTUS term: Free expression and related cases

Review granted

Pending petitions

State action

Qualified immunity

Immunity under Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 

Liability Anti-Terrorism Act

Section 230 immunity

Review denied

Last FAN

This article is part of First Amendment News, an editorially independent publication edited by professor Ronald K. L. Collins and hosted by FIRE as part of our mission to educate the public about First Amendment issues. The opinions expressed are those of the article's author(s) and may not reflect the opinions of FIRE or of Professor Collins.

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