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Perils to Free Speech from Woke and Anti-Woke

From Hamline University to Florida school libraries—outrage and censorship, left and right.
January 11, 2023
Perils to Free Speech from Woke and Anti-Woke
A pixelated rendering of The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jami' at-Tawarikh, by Rashid al-Din, Tabriz, Persia, 1307 (Composite / Alamy / Shutterstock)

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.

A detailed report in the New York Times by Vimal Patel tells a remarkable story (though, as it turns out, not an entirely complete one). Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor who was teaching an online global art history class in the fall semester, not only included a notice in the syllabus that the course would include images of religious figures such as Muhammad and the Buddha, but also warned during the October 6 class itself that the painting (which shows the Angel Gabriel delivering the first Quranic revelation to Muhammad) was about to be shown and that students who didn’t want to see it could turn off their screens. López Prater also explained to the class that part of her intent was to illustrate that there is no absolute prohibition on depictions of holy persons in Islamic art and culture and that Islam is not monolithic on the subject.

The discussion reportedly proceeded respectfully and without incident, but at the end of the session, a Sudanese-American student named Aram Wedatalla, president of the university’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), stayed to voice her discomfort to López Prater. Afterward, evidently feeling that their discussion had not been productive, Wedatalla complained to the university administration. While the administration initially seemed supportive of López Prater and told her she acted properly, complaints from other students—who had not been in the class—quickly brought about a reversal. By the end of October, López Prater was informed that her contract would not be renewed.

Meanwhile, as the controversy grew, the rhetoric from school administrators and activist students transformed the incident in the art class into a repugnant assault on Muslim students. A November 7 mass email from the school’s “vice president for inclusive excellence” called it “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic,” while a November 18 editorial in the Hamline student paper, the Oracle, classified it as an incident of “hate and discrimination.” Nur Mood, Hamline’s assistant director of social justice programs and adviser to the campus MSA, told the Oracle, “It’s something that in a million years, I never expected that it would happen here at Hamline. I hope this is the last time I see something similar to this. . . . There’s a lot of apologies all happening, but the harm’s done.” He also proposed mandatory training on Islamophobia for all faculty. Seemingly the only concession was that the school concluded that López Prater’s actions amounted merely to “an act of intolerance” rather than an actual hate crime.

A “Community Conversation” held in response to the controversy on December 8 turned out to be entirely one-sided. All the panelists apparently took it for granted that the showing of the Muhammad image was disrespectful, offensive, and racist—indeed, an example of pervasive racism at Hamline, where many Muslim students are black. Wedatalla, who apparently never explained why she disregarded both the advance warning about images of Muhammad being used during the semester and the specific warning during the class session, talked tearfully about feeling hurt, excluded, and disrespected. The forum was led by Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the most prominent Muslim civil rights group. Hussein flatly asserted that the school “cannot have incidents like this happen” if it wants to show that it values Muslim and nonwhite students.

One faculty member who attended that campus event, religion professor Mark Berkson, did try to object—pointing out, among other things, that there is no consensus in Islam on depictions of Muhammad and that “there are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.” He says that two university officials approached him to discourage him from speaking. In reply, Hussein suggested that scholars who don’t find the image offensive are marginal cranks, similar to someone who would “teach a whole class about why Hitler was good.”

And there’s another egregious twist the Times article doesn’t mention. A long letter from Berkson defending López Prater and the showing of Muhammad images in academic settings, published in the Oracle on December 6, was disappeared two days later. A subsequent staff editorial noting the letter’s removal and titled “Journalism, minimizing harm and trauma” explained that, while the paper’s editors, all undergraduates, were in favor of “having conversations in the open,” they would not “participate in conversations where a person must defend their lived experience and trauma as topics of discussion or debate.” The editorial repeatedly stressed that “trauma and lived experiences are not open for debate” and that the publication’s only job with regard to such accounts is to provide supportive and respectful listening. Attorney and blogger Ken White, who is generally skeptical of “cancel culture” complaints but finds the Hamline saga appalling, has commented that the editorial reads like “a mean-spirited, excessive satire of college students from some far-right site.”

Granted, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief told UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh that the Berkson letter was taken down because it was posted during finals week when people had little opportunity to respond and promised that it would be put back online “at some point.” But Volokh clearly isn’t holding his breath: He posted the text of the spiked letter on his own blog.

Many people dismayed by López Prater’s firing and more generally by the controversy at Hamline point out that—as López Prater argued—there is no consensus in Muslim cultures on images of Muhammad and that there is a long history of such depictions in Islamic art. (Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, has an excellent essay on the subject in New Lines magazine.) But the issue is bigger than that. Surely religious taboos, of whatever religion, should not govern the display of images in an academic setting with the exception of religious schools.

Several Islamic art scholars who spoke to the New York Times said that they would draw a distinction between the reverential painting shown by López Prater and “mocking cartoons” of Muhammad such as the ones printed in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Fair enough. But it should be a given that a professor teaching modern controversies over free speech, for example, can display the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or the earlier Muhammad cartoons printed in the Danish weekly Jyllands-Posten, without being accused of “hate”—though advance warning may be appropriate. Whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were bigoted is another debate; but surely there are times when even truly vile racist, antisemitic, misogynistic, or otherwise hateful images can and should be included in a course curriculum (in a class of the history of Nazi Germany or of white supremacism in America, for example). The default assumption should be that adults, even young adults, can handle such images even if they are profoundly offensive. To think otherwise is profoundly infantilizing.

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 Times that “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?

It goes without saying that the fixation on “harm” from contentious speech does no favors to people or communities affected by discrimination and prejudice (as many American Muslims certainly have been). Social justice dogma can stifle discussion and promote groupthink in those communities themselves, designating people with the approved viewpoint as their only legitimate representatives. 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.

However limited in scope, the Hamline University incident does confirm that a problem with speech- and idea-policing on the left exists—whether you want to call it “cancel culture,” “political correctness,” “wokeness,” or any of the other buzzwords applied to this phenomenon. And while there is a large segment of progressive opinion in which all talk of a left-wing “cancel culture” is met with derision and spin, it is also true that, as Bulwark editor Jonathan V. Last pointed out yesterday, the very existence of a New York Times story clearly critical of the school’s actions shows the left policing its own. It’s also worth noting that PEN America, a liberal organization, has condemned the school’s handling of the controversy and defended academic freedom in the strongest terms.

Last is also correct to note that the Times’s effort to “police their own side” stands in contrast to how the mainstream conservative media respond to “cancel culture” on the right—that is, to right-wing moves to police speech and ideas. That such moves are happening is not in question.

Take a recent story by progressive blogger Judd Legum about an Escambia County, Florida schoolteacher named Vicki Baggett who is using the so-called “Stop WOKE Act,” signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis last April, to go after school library books. Baggett’s latest target: When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball, a kids’ book about the childhood of sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who won three Olympic gold medals in 1960. Rudolph grew up in segregated Tennessee in the 1940s and had to deal with poverty and racism while growing up. At one point, the book has Rudolph, whose mother worked as a maid for a white family, reflecting that it isn’t right that “white folks got all the luxury, and we black folks got the dirty work.”

Baggett says that the book “trashes and puts down those who are not black” and that white students in particular are “white-shamed” by it. Look who’s being a snowflake now.

The Stop WOKE Act (the higher education portion of which has been temporarily halted by a Florida court) includes a provision making it unlawful to teach that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.” At least ostensibly, this means that students should not be explicitly told they should feel guilt or distress over such actions; but critics have long argued that the law is so vague it could apply to any potentially upsetting materials dealing with racism or sexism. (While the law technically covers only classroom instructions, Baggett believes it should apply to libraries as well.)

Baggett’s crusade also includes challenges to LGBT-themed books and books with sexual content she regards as “pornography”; at the moment, 125 school library books in the county are on “restricted” status because of her challenges pending review. In at least one case, her complaint was rejected by a school district but upheld by the county school board. And if she had her way, Baggett would cancel not only books but people. According to Legum:

She has repeatedly asked school officials to identify the librarians or other school employees responsible for purchasing the books she has challenged. Baggett said that, ultimately, she believes her colleagues “can and will be prosecuted” for felonies under Florida’s child pornography laws.

Like the Hamline College debacle, Baggett’s rampage is a local issue of limited impact in which one can nonetheless see broader issues: bad laws, supposedly intended to counteract the left’s cultural influence in education, being used by bad actors to suppress material that offends them and punish people who make such material available.

In Escambia County, “anti-woke” legislation is being weaponized as a tool of censorship that comes primarily from outside educational institutions. At Hamline University, “woke” ideology is being weaponized as a tool of censorship from within. Meanwhile, reports on the left-wing peril to free speech are being used to push a red-state crackdown on “wokeness,” and reports on right-wing attempts to use the government to bully “woke” institutions into submission are being used to dismiss entirely valid concerns about social justice bullies. The vicious cycle will go on until more people are willing to criticize their own.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.