Judge Throws Out Four Of Five Claims In Fired Art History Professor Case

A lawsuit against Hamline University by a former art history professor will remain in federal court, U.S. District Judge Katherine Menendez ruled Friday. But she dismissed four of the professor’s five claims that stemmed from a campus dispute last winter.

Back in January, Erika López Prater, an adjunct art history professor, filed the lawsuit in state court. López Prater lost her teaching position at Hamline after a Muslim student complained about an online class where she showed two paintings depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims consider visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to be sacrilegious. López Prater said she had provided warnings in the syllabus and before class to allow Muslim students to opt out of viewing the painting. 

The case sparked national media coverage and outcry from free-speech advocates. Professors called for the university president, Fayneese Miller, to resign. She later announced her retirement. In response to the backlash, Muslim students asked the public for understanding about their objection to the images.

In her initial complaint, López Prater alleged religious discrimination, defamation, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of Minnesota’s whistleblower law, and breach of contract. She later dropped the breach of contract claims.

Hamline moved the case to federal court, arguing that because López Prater was a union member, her claims depend on the interpretation of her collective bargaining agreement (CBA), governed by the federal Labor Management Relations Act.

In her Friday ruling, Menendez agreed. “The Court finds that Ms. López Prater’s claims substantially depend upon the interpretation of the CBA,” she wrote. 

Hamline had moved to dismiss all five of López Prater’s claims. Menendez dismissed four of them, but allowed the religious discrimination claim to proceed.

López Prater claimed two theories of religious discrimination: first, that Hamline discriminated against her because she is not Muslim; and second, that Hamline discriminated against her because she failed to conform to others’ religious beliefs.

“Although the Court appreciates that Ms. López Prater alleges unusual and somewhat indirect theories for religious discrimination, it does not believe that novelty in this context equates to failure to state a claim,” Menendez wrote. “Given the lens applicable at this stage, where a plaintiffs’ allegations are taken as true, dismissal is not appropriate.” That is, while López Prater’s religious discrimination claims are unusual, that does not mean they can be dismissed; she’ll have a chance to argue these claims in court. 

However, Menendez dismissed the claims for defamation, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. The defamation claim was based on the fact that leaders at Hamline had publicly alluded to her actions as Islamophobic. But Menendez called these statements “nonactionable opinion.”

“Indeed, the fact that people (including Muslims) hold different views about whether or not Ms. López Prater’s conduct was Islamophobic or inappropriate further demonstrates the idea that the statements at issue are opinions that cannot be characterized, let alone proven, as true or false,” Menendez wrote.

Reached late Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for Hamline University said that his office was still reviewing the order. David Redden, a lawyer for López Prater, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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