A Sahan Journal illustration of the video screen, as it appeared in Erika López Prater’s art-history lecture at Hamline, on October 6, 2022. Because the PowerPoint launched in editing mode, instead of presentation mode, multiple slides could be seen before the adjunct professor offered a content warning. During the lecture, one of the images on slide number 3, in the lower lefthand corner--here rendered as a brown box--showed a painting of the Prophet Muhammad, from the year 1307. Credit: Aala Abdullahi | Sahan Journal

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Minutes into her October 6 online lecture on art history, Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor at Hamline University, warned her class what was coming.

“The next two slides that I am going to show do contain figurative depictions of the Prophet Muhammad,” she said, according to a video obtained by the Hamline Oracle and Sahan Journal. “So if that is something that you don’t want to look at, I just wanted to give you that heads-up, and I will let you know when the slides have passed.”

As López Prater gave that warning, however, a painting of the Prophet was already visible on the Google Meet screen. The class typically met in person, but on October 6 it was held online.

López Prater was displaying a PowerPoint presentation that showed a large panel on the right, as well as a column to the left that displayed her next few slides at a smaller size. An artistic depiction of the Prophet Muhammad was visible in one of the slides in this column.

That image, in thumbnail form, appeared on the screen for two minutes before López Prater offered those words of caution—a “trigger warning,” as it’s sometimes called in classrooms.

This new information about the order of events in the virtual art history class contradicts local and national media reports. On January 8, for example, The New York Times reported that in addition to warnings in her syllabus, López Prater “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.” That article brought international attention to a dispute playing out at a small liberal arts college in St. Paul.

The video, however, makes clear that the depiction was on screen, in thumbnail form, for approximately two minutes before López Prater started her oral warnings.

The Hamline story has become a lightning-rod national debate about academic freedom. After a student, Aram Wedatalla, complained to administrators about seeing the painting in class, Hamline did not renew López Prater’s contract to teach in the spring. That move sparked an outcry from academic-freedom advocates across the country. 

The story has also exposed divisions within the Muslim community: While the Minnesota chapter for the Council of American-Islamic Relations described the classroom incident as Islamophobic, the national CAIR organization took the rare step of issuing a statement in disagreement

Sahan Journal showed a portion of the video to David Redden, a lawyer for López Prater. After university administrators called her Islamophobic and declined to renew her teaching contract, López Prater sued Hamline. Her suit filed January 18 in Ramsey County District Court alleges defamation, breach of contract, and religious discrimination, among other claims.

Redden stated that displaying the preview slide was inadvertent. “The video is no defense to Hamline University’s actions as outlined in Dr. López Prater’s complaint and has no effect on the claims alleged in Dr. López Prater’s complaint,” Redden said. “Notably, Aram Wedatalla did not complain to Dr. López Prater about seeing a thumbnail view of the painting, and we are unaware of her ever suggesting that this was the basis of her complaint.” 

Over email, López Prater said she hoped to speak for this story, but she did not provide a comment before deadline.

In an interview this week, Aram Wedatalla and Pearl Buabeng, both students who attended the art history class, said they did not recall seeing the thumbnail image. 

“This is another trauma on top of the trauma because of how she chose to just put the picture up there,” said Wedatalla, who is the president of Hamline’s Muslim Student Association.

Buabeng, who identifies as Christian, grew up in Ghana, where she had many Muslim family members and friends and learned that Muslims should not be shown depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, she said. She took the world art class hoping to see artistic representations of her identity.

“So for a professor to do something like that, and knowing from the background that you are not supposed to do that, and then claim to give us a space to leave but truly did not offer that opportunity, that is heartbreaking,” Buabeng added.

Recording a lecture

The October 6 video takes the form of a cropped screen recording of the art history lecture held on Google Meet. A student in the class recorded the video on their laptop as a way to save the lecture for later viewing; the student didn’t intend to pay attention to the lecture in real time. 

The Hamline Oracle obtained the video in November and published an article on December 6 about the incident and email communication that followed. This week, Hamline Oracle staff learned of inaccuracies in their reporting about how the depictions were shown in class. The Hamline Oracle and Sahan Journal teamed up to correct the record and co-publish this story. We also spoke with students who were present in class that day, and heard fresh accounts of why they felt disturbed by the lecture.

Hamline administration declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Hamline’s Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Marcela Kostihová, also said she could not comment specifically on the video or the situation due to active litigation.

However, Kostihová added, “The public version of the events in the class has been inaccurate.” 

A technical glitch leaves multiple images on screen

From the beginning of the video, which begins right before López Prater begins her lecture in class, three presentation slides are seen on the left of the Microsoft PowerPoint.

In PowerPoint’s presentation setting, viewers in a classroom or audience will see a main image that fills up the whole screen. But in the editing view, multiple slides appear on screen at once: the main image; and, in this case, three slides in a sidebar to the left.

Around the 1:50 mark, López Prater begins her warning. She explains that she will be showing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, and that some students may not want to look. She tells students she will let them know when those slides have passed. 

“I am showing you this image for a reason,” she continues as she prepares students to view the slide. “There is this common thinking that Islam completely forbids outright any figurative depictions, or any depictions, of holy personages. And while many Islamic cultures do strongly frown on this practice, I would like to remind you that there is no one monolithic Islamic culture.”

However, the artwork is already on screen in the sidebar.

At the 3:50 mark, López Prater attempts to advance to the next slide, a map, which she describes as a “buffer slide,” and then to a slide with an image of the Prophet Muhammad.

She then begins describing the painting of the Prophet Muhammad receiving a revelation from the Angel Gabriel. The painting, from the year 1307, was part of a manuscript commissioned by a Sunni Muslim king in Iran. 

However, López Prater’s introductory slide, which shows Dome of the Rock, a 7th century Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, continues to take up most of the screen. A student informs her that they cannot see the slides at 4:16 on the recording timeline. 

At around four-and-a-half minutes into the video, López Prater condenses the carousel of future slides on the left so they are much smaller, and the main image takes up a larger portion of the screen. At this point, for the first time, a depiction of Prophet Muhammad appears as the main slide. 

Redden, López Prater’s lawyer, said the video demonstrates that López Prater had shown the thumbnail image accidentally. “The video shows that Dr. López Prater had her PowerPoint presentation open but not in presentation mode,” he said. “As a result, the first of the two paintings showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad was visible in a thumbnail on the lower left side of the screen at the beginning of class. As the video makes plain, this was inadvertent. The video also makes plain that Dr. López Prater did not know the students were seeing a thumbnail view of the painting.”

Hamline Religion Professor Mark Berkson has not seen the video, but has discussed with López Prater what happened in the class. He also defended her actions through a commentary in The Oracle. 

“If the image was seen, in some way…then that is an unfortunate occurrence. But that was not intentional,” Berkson told The Oracle. “However, that is not the major issue that was brought up, because the students are saying, as I understand it, that these images should never be shown in a classroom and that the very showing of them is Islamophobic.”

Christopher Proczko, a Minneapolis attorney with Sapientia Law Group who specializes in media law and is not involved in the case, said he did not think the new information would affect López Prater’s defamation claim. (Proczko added that he could not comment on the breach of contract and religious discrimination charges.) 

Regardless, he said, it might be difficult to prove defamation on grounds of being publicly labeled Islamophobic. Proczko added that courts across the U.S. have rejected some claims that may resemble López Prater’s. For example, “calling somebody a white supremacist—that’s an opinion that cannot be defamation for which a plaintiff can recover damages,” he said.

How students experienced it

Wedatalla, the student who raised the concern, recalled that the first half of class that day involved going over upcoming midterm exams and the study guide. She knew that day’s lecture would focus on Islamic art; she was looking forward to it.

While reviewing her midterm notes, she heard the professor describe a “trigger warning.”

“How can someone give a trigger warning to something so beautiful and peaceful?” she recalled thinking. “So now I want to know what she’s going to show. I was just honestly curious. I wanted to know what in my beautiful religion could need a trigger warning to be shown.”

Buabeng said she, too, grew more attentive as López Prater described a “trigger warning.” When she saw the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, her thoughts immediately went to Wedatalla, who she knew should not see the painting. “My first thought was to make sure that my friend was okay,” she said.

When Wedatalla saw it was a representation of the Prophet Muhammad, she immediately felt “traumatized,” she said. She videocalled her mother in disbelief. She could feel herself “breaking down,” she said. Her mother could see her shaking and crying, and stayed on the phone with Wedatalla until she could get to a friend.

Wedatalla, who is from Sudan, described herself as “not Westernized whatsoever.” That means she has a deep respect for teachers, she said, so she waited until after class to speak up.

But when she did speak up, she did not feel that López Prater listened to her. “She basically dismissed my feelings, my values, and where I stand as a Black Muslim student,” Wedatalla said. “It literally broke my heart into pieces.”

Do content warnings matter?

López Prater also included a warning about religious imagery in her syllabus: a written overview of the material to be covered over the course of the semester. The course, she explained, would include “representational and non-representational depictions of holy figures (for example, the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, and the Buddha).” 

In the syllabus, López Prater requested that students who had religious concerns about the visual content contact her in advance.

“I aim to affirm students of all religious observances and beliefs in the content of the course,” López Prater wrote in her syllabus. 

Wedatalla and Buabeng both said they read the 11-page syllabus. Wedatalla said she did not recall seeing the warning about religious imagery. 

“As college students, we’re not going to recall everything from the syllabus,” she said. “Sometimes we just read the important parts of the syllabus.”

The syllabus shows that a discussion of Islamic Art and Iberia was scheduled for October 4. However, due to a combination of illness and technical issues, López Prater canceled one session, causing subsequent courses to be delayed by one class period, Redden said.

One student who was in the class, Rosella Stewart, who said she identifies as agnostic, told The Oracle and Sahan Journal that López Prater gave warnings for multiple days before showing the depictions and was aware there were students who did not feel comfortable participating. 

Stewart attended the October 6 lecture, and said she didn’t really grasp how other students responded until a club meeting later on. 

“Multiple people expressed deep rage, sadness, and pain over the incident,” Stewart explained in an email. “It cannot be denied how jarring it was for many of my peers to have seen that image, but at the same time, I cannot understand why students did not leave the lecture when invited to do so. It was an online class, so it is possible the professor’s warnings were not heard in time that day.”

For Wedatalla and Buabeng, the warnings from López Prater were not sufficient to justify showing artwork of the Prophet Muhammad.

Wedatalla saw the warnings as evidence that López Prater knew she should not be showing the depictions in the first place. Wedatalla questioned what would have been different if she had heeded the warnings, and reached out to López Prater in advance—especially given how she felt when she did approach the professor.

Buabeng agreed that the warnings had not helped.

“Whatever she put in the syllabus, that should not have given her a right to traumatize my friend in this way,” she said.

Wedatalla stressed that she had nothing against López Prater. “Islam teaches us to forgive and move on,” she said. “She is always welcome to show up at our community gatherings to learn more from us and learn more about Islam.” 

The controversy has caused months of internal turmoil at Hamline. As students returned to class this week, faculty voted overwhelmingly to ask Fayneese S. Miller, the university’s president, for her resignation. Student leaders penned a letter in Miller’s support. But only the board of trustees can make a decision about Miller’s fate.

The trustees have said they are “actively involved” in reviewing the university’s policies and responses to this situation. But they have not responded to multiple requests to clarify what steps they may be taking. In a letter published Thursday night in The Hamline Oracle, Miller indicated she intends to stay.

Anika Besst

Anika Besst is a senior at Hamline University pursuing double majors in journalism (with an emphasis of social justice) and theater arts. She is the editor-in-chief of Hamline’s student newspaper, The...

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Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...