College may have violated accreditation conditions by firing instructor for showing painting of Muhammad

Hamline University fired a professor for ‘hate and discrimination’ for showing a Muslim image of Muhammad in Islamic Arts class. The professor didn’t have tenure, so he may or may not be protected from termination by contractual academic-freedom guarantees. And the University is private, so its action didn’t violate the First Amendment.

But a civil-liberties group is fighting back with a new approach, complaining to the University’s accreditor. Reason Magazine reports that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has filed

a complaint with the school’s accreditor, which explicitly requires that colleges receiving accreditation protect academic freedom.

On October 6, an art history professor at Hamline University, a liberal arts college in Saint Paul, Minnesota, showed students a 14th-century painting that depicts the prophet Muhammad receiving his first Quranic revelation. The professor, who has not been named, reportedly contextualized the image for several minutes beforehand, telling students “I am showing you this image for a reason. And that is that there is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids, outright, any figurative depictions or any depictions of holy personages. While many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you there is no one, monothetic Islamic culture.” According to The Oracle, Hamline’s student newspaper, the professor insisted in a later email that, “I did not try to surprise students with this image.”

However, one student in class that day—the president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association—took offense, complaining first to the professor, and then to school administrators. According to The Oracle, the school took swift action against the professor. On November 7, undergraduate students received an email condemning the unnamed incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” Four days later, David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence told The Oracle that “it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community.” The professor was an adjunct, which is what allowed the school to fire them without due process by simply declining to renew their contract.

The incident sparked outrage from free speech advocates. The Hamline administration’s assertion that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom,” was subject to particular criticism. As Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton College wrote of the incident in The Chronicle of Education, “Barring a professor of art history from showing this painting, lest it harm observant Muslims in class, is just as absurd as asking a biology professor not to teach evolution because it may offend evangelical Protestants in the course.”

However, Hamline’s status as a private university seemed to afford it protection from real consequences….However, in this case, FIRE may have found a way to hold Hamline accountable.

On January 4, FIRE announced that it had filed a formal complaint with the Higher Learning Commission, Hamline’s accreditor. The professor’s “nonrenewal violates both HLC and Hamline policies clearly committing the university to free expression and its corollary, academic freedom for all faculty,” wrote Alex Morey, FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy, in a letter to the accreditor.

As Wikipedia notes, there are sectarian divisions among Muslims about whether it is acceptable to depict Muhammad: “Most Sunni Muslims believe that visual depictions of all the prophets of Islam should be prohibited and are particularly averse to visual representations of Muhammad….In Shia Islam, however, images of Muhammad are quite common nowadays, even though Shia scholars historically were against such depictions.” Although objections to illustrations of Muhammad rose over the centuries, one can find depictions of Muhammad by Muslims even in 16th Century Iran.

Images of Mohammed are forbidden in some nations in the Middle East and Asia. For example, in 1963 an account by a Turkish author of a pilgrimage to Mecca was banned in Pakistan because it contained reproductions of miniatures showing Mohammed unveiled.

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