From Hamline University to Florida school libraries—outrage and censorship, left and right.
Another day, another battle in America’s free speech wars: This time it’s at Hamline University, a private liberal arts school in Minnesota with about 1,800 undergraduates where an adjunct professor has lost her job for showing a fourteenth-century Persian painting of the prophet Muhammad in an art class after she gave ample warnings that it could be offensive to Muslims. Granted, it’s one incident at an obscure private school. But it also points to bigger issues of the effects of identity-focused social justice politics on intellectual freedom, in an era when many believe that criticizing the left is a diversion from far more serious threats on the right.
One should not, of course, generalize from the Hamline University fiasco. Many professors continue to show Muhammad images in class without incident. Omid Safi, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, told the New York Timesthat “he regularly shows images of the Prophet Muhammad in class and without Dr. López Prater’s opt-out mechanisms” and that part of his goal is to make students grapple with how images once considered pious can be later redefined as blasphemous and forbidden. But a chilling effect, at least for untenured faculty and especially adjuncts, is quite likely.
There is also the larger chilling effect of a large percentage of American educators—and students—embracing the “social justice” dogma which holds that disagreement equals harm or even violence, at least when it comes to claims of trauma, discrimination, or bigotry made by members of presumptively oppressed groups. Pressures to censor or abridge “harmful” speech are unlikely to remain confined to college campuses. In a 2019 Knight Foundation survey of college students, over 40 percent said that “hate speech” (which, as the Hamline University incident shows, can be very broadly defined) should not be protected by the First Amendment. At the Hamline forum, CAIR’s Hussein said that “if somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library.” But if “controversial stuff about Islam”—in this case, a view endorsed by many Muslims themselves—is off-limits at a college that strives to be inclusive, it’s hard to see how a public library that wants all community members to feel welcome would avoid the same pressures. And what happens if and when students trained to believe that assertions based on “trauma” and “lived experience” are off-limits to debate graduate and go on to take jobs in the media, in government, or in other spheres that involve public discourse?
Amna Khaled, an associate professor of history at Minnesota’s Carleton College, makes this point in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece, writing that she is offended by the Hamline administrators’ stance as a Muslim:
In choosing to label this image of Muhammad as Islamophobic, in endorsing the view that figurative representations of the Prophet are prohibited in Islam, Hamline has privileged a most extreme and conservative Muslim point of view.
Ironically, in the social justice framework, this extreme conservatism passes for a progressive defense of a marginalized group.