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Facing lawsuit, Hamline suddenly discovers its commitment to academic freedom

After dismissing an instructor who showed medieval artwork of the Prophet Muhammad, Hamline backtracks, announces it’s committed to academic freedom in the face of legal action and a Board of Trustees investigation
Classic Old Main Building at Hamline University in St. Paul

Sam Wagner /

Classic Old Main Building at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Facing heightened criticism, a Board of Trustees investigation, and now a lawsuit, Hamline University reversed course on Tuesday, claiming the university has been committed to academic freedom all along. The about-face comes after the university doubled and tripled down over the past month on its dismissal of Erika López Prater for displaying a 14th century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad in her art history course.

After standing firm despite pushback from across the globe for its actions, López Prater’s lawsuit seems to have prompted the small liberal arts college in Minnesota to finally relent. Hamline claimed in a media statement that “language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom.” (Note the university’s use of passive voice. Who used the regrettable language, Hamline?)

Hamline University President Fayneese Miller

Hamline University president triples down in defending instructor’s nonrenewal for showing Muhammad painting


The university added, “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 coexist.”

Is that so?

Hamline President Fayneese S. Miller has repeatedly said exactly the opposite. In December, she co-signed an email stating that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom” (emphasis ours). And just a week ago, Miller again claimed “academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum,” and that academic freedom was subject to the “dictates of society.” (Neither of those things is true.)

López Prater’s lawsuit comes less than a week after the Hamline Board of Trustees released a statement announcing it was investigating Hamline’s actions. “Upholding academic freedom and fostering an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both required to fulfill our Mission,” the Board of Trustees said Friday evening,

Whether because of public pressure, the lawsuit, or pressure from its board, Hamline has now — at long last — publicly reaffirmed its commitment to academic freedom and admitted that its actions were a “misstep.”

FIRE is glad to see Hamline committing itself to academic freedom — even if we’re skeptical about the university’s motivations.

That’s exactly what FIRE asked of Hamline on Dec. 28 when we wrote the university. We urged Hamline to reinstate López Prater and publicly reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom. And when the university doubled down — defending its actions as addressing student concerns — we filed a complaint with the Higher Learning Commission, Hamline’s accreditor, arguing Hamline failed to live up to the commission’s accreditation standards.

More than 1,500 supporters of academic freedom took action to let Hamline know they’re watching and want the professor’s contract renewed. And more than 400 faculty members from around the world signed onto FIRE’s faculty letter in support of the professor.

FIRE is glad to see Hamline committing itself to academic freedom — even if we’re skeptical about the university’s motivations. We still urge Hamline to offer López Prater a new contract — whether she accepts it or not —to show that Hamline truly values academic freedom and regrets its actions.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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