Is there a cost to free speech on college campuses?
A former adjunct professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the latest target of ‘cancel culture’ for a religious image she showed her class
The story of Erika López Prater, a former adjunct professor of art history at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, has drawn national coverage as one of the latest professors to fall to “cancel culture.”
After a student complained that López Prater’s teaching was “Islamophobic,” university officials terminated the adjunct professor’s contract with the school. The New York Times reported that the school later “walked back” the description of her class.
Rather than simply walking away from Hamline University, however, López Prater filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming the administration’s actions amounted to “religious discrimination and defamation.”
Cancel culture has always been around, but in the last 20 years social media has created a new platform for people to air their complaints about one another. The combination of technology and cancel culture has the power to discredit an individual’s reputation within seconds.
While proponents believe cancel culture is a way to hold people accountable, critics of cancel culture say professors should not have to live in fear of losing their jobs when they discuss controversial aspects of history with their classes.
Free speech rights have historically protected Americans who want to see change or question authority — whether through protests during civil rights movements or rallies to bring soldiers back from war. And higher education has traditionally been a place where people explore new ideas and ask questions.
But amid a growing number of cases involving so-called “cancel culture,” some are concerned that mutual respect among students, teachers and administrators is giving way to pressures to silence voices with whom one might not agree.
It could be harder to have difficult discussions productively than in the past. And students may be leading the charge.
Cancel culture on campus
Last October, the Buckley Institute released its annual survey comparing how many college students across the U.S. “expressed concerns about free speech but also support efforts to suppress offensive speech in record numbers.”
“The college student disillusionment with free speech is growing at an alarming pace,” said Buckley Institute founder and Executive Director Lauren Noble in a press release accompanying the survey. “More students are intimidated from speaking freely and more students are willing to intimidate others from speaking freely than at any time in the history of the survey. In many ways, America’s undergraduate student body seems to be abandoning the very ideas that made America the great country it is today.”
According to the survey, “63% of students polled reported feeling intimidated in sharing opinions different than that of their peers — also a record high and a jump of 13% from the 2021 survey.”
In an interview with the Deseret News, Cole Christensen, a political science student at Brigham Young University, was asked if he ever feels uncomfortable expressing his take on current issues at college. “In the classroom, I never express my political views. Mainly because I think that my opinion won’t be accepted by other people,” he said.
Fear of being canceled by your classmates due to identity-politics can hinder progress for all students involved, sources say.
In an article for the Deseret News, successful businessman Joel Peterson, who taught at Stanford University, wrote, “The politics of fear and retribution, of silencing and name-calling, and of assumption and stereotyping must be replaced with an equality of opportunity, a diversity of ideas and a shared gratitude for America’s uniquely open culture.”
But that’s not what the survey showed is happening among students. “A record high of 58% of students surveyed reported feeling intimidated in sharing an opinion that was different than a professor’s, 8% higher than last year,” according to the Buckley Institute. “The number reporting never having had this issue fell to a record low of 38%.”
The backlash was not theoretical in López Prater’s case. She was aware that some Muslims are very opposed to and offended by depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. In her legal complaint, she says she warned the students in her art history class before displaying the controversial medieval depiction of the Prophet Muhammad to the class.
Her syllabus for the class also said that was part of the curriculum: “This course will introduce students to several religious traditions and the visual cultures they have produced historically. This includes showing and discussing both representational and non-representational depictions of holy figures (for example, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ and the Buddha). If you have any questions or concerns about either missing class for a religious observance or the visual content that will be presented, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
On the day the artwork was shown, the lawsuit says López Prater gave an additional warning to the students and no one expressed concern, so she showed the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
At the end of the class, which was conducted online, a Muslim student, Aram Wedatalla, president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association, complained to the instructor that the images are too offensive to even consider showing.
The lawsuit against Hamline University says, “Wedatalla was enraged that López Prater showed the images at all, to anyone. By her statements and actions, Wedatalla wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students and Muslim students who did not object to images of the Prophet Muhammad — a privilege granted to no other religion or religious belief at Hamline.”
After Wedatalla’s complaint was brought to the college administrator’s attention, López Prater’s contract with the University was not renewed.
Nicholas May, the professor’s attorney, said that since then, “the damage to her reputation by what they’ve done and said will never be fixed, so we are seeking damages for that harm to her reputation as well as to the emotional distress.”
On Feb. 2, at the request of López Prater, a federal judge dismissed the case against Hamline University, as she plans to file a new lawsuit against the university in a different court, May said.
According to the Sahan Journal, “The case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning López Prater retained the right to file a similar lawsuit.”
Should educators worry?
Asked about the case, Christopher F. Karpowitz, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, said, “I think it’s important to take up controversial issues in a sensitive way, and to be sensitive to the religious commitments of different people in the classroom. But I also think the mere discussion of an image is not itself Islamophobic and, in fact, the classroom has to be a place where people can explore scholarly perspectives and important images and ideas in human history. Even if they’re difficult or challenging — or sometimes even offensive to some groups.”
Karpowitz said he thinks the Hamline administration should have handled the situation differently.
“I’m concerned about the college administration’s lack of support for the faculty in this situation. And I would be concerned, no matter what the political or religious perspective of the students or the faculty members involved would be. Showing an image that has been important in human history is not the same as expressing hate or prejudice against a group,” he said.
According to a study done by Pew Research Center, the familiarity with the term “cancel culture” varies with one’s age. Pew found “64% of adults under 30 say they have heard a great deal or fair amount about cancel culture; that share drops to 46% among those ages 30 to 49 and 34% among those 50 and older.”
López Prater said there is an issue of “high marketization” that is affecting college campuses today. “Colleges and universities have adopted a customer-service model,” she told New Lines Magazine. “They’ve slashed tenure track positions in favor of cheap adjunct labor. Meanwhile, that is accompanied by administrative bloat.”
Christiane Gruber is a professor of Islamic art in the history of art department at the University of Michigan. She wrote an essay where she questioned the actions taken by Hamline University and explained the history of the artwork for which López Prater lost her contract.
“These incidents, statements and actions at Hamline will be for others to investigate further,” she wrote. “As a scholar specializing in Islamic representations of Muhammad, however, it is my duty to share accurate information about the painting at the heart of the controversy.”
Gruber’s essay said the Prophet Muhammad painting was “by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons in respect for, and in exaltation of Muhammad and the Quran.”
Not just Hamline
The Hamline case is recent, but the challenge has been ongoing.
It’s been five years since The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, found itself in a heated debate on race, politics and free speech.
The school’s annual Day of Absence, an event that has been held for decades, was modified — reportedly due to fears for undocumented and immigrant students.
Instead of having people of color leave campus, the college had participating white students leave. Professor Bret Weinstein sent out a campuswide email objecting to the proposed changes. He may not have anticipated student protests and threats to follow his remarks. He sued for $3.85 million, but he and his wife — also a teacher at Evergreen State College — agreed to settle for $500,000, including attorney fees, and to resign. The school did not admit any liability.
A Seattle Times article discussing the case’s resolution quoted from the lawsuit, which said that the Evergreen administration failed to “protect its employees from repeated provocative and corrosive verbal and written hostility based on race, as well as threats of physical violence.”
Free speech and controversy
Karpowitz said he doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, but added, “I think it’s important for professors to create the right kind of classroom environment where you can engage those issues, where all different perspectives, including and especially the perspectives as students of color, are welcome ... . It’s also extremely rewarding when we create environments where students feel like they were respected for who they were, and for their values and ideas.”
Washington University of St. Louis history major Jeff Kang is among students who believe that the college classroom is a place where controversial topics are discussed regularly between professor and student. He’s not troubled, he wrote in an article for his campus paper, that people sometimes disagree with what’s being taught, but wonders how better those rifts could be managed.
“Many professors often purposely ask questions regarding controversial issues during class to encourage students to abandon biased and unreflective perspectives,” Kang wrote.