Ark. professor files defamation suit against students
A tenured law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock believes his students caused substantial and irreparable injury to his reputation. So he is taking them to court.
Richard J. Peltz is pursuing a defamation claim against two former students who were involved in the university’s Black Law Students Association and another man who is an officer of a black lawyers’ organization. He claims they used his comments about affirmative action unjustly to accuse him of racism.
Peltz originally filed the lawsuit in March but changed his complaint in June, dropping claims against the Black Law Students Association. He contends that students Valerie D. Nation and Chrishauna L. Clark misrepresented his feelings about affirmative action and twisted them to support accusations of racism.
The students sent a memo to dean Charles Goldner, titled “Request for Redress,” in which they accuse Peltz of acts of racism dating back to 2005. In his constitutional law class, he displayed what the students said was a belittling satirical article from The Onion on Rosa Parks. The students also wrote that he delivered an “affirmative action rant” and allowed a white student to give “incorrect facts” about a key affirmative action case. Among other accusations, they also say he offended students in a debate about affirmative action that the Black Law Students Association sponsored.
“What happened in class that night was not First Amendment Free Speech,” the memo asserts. “It was hateful and inciting speech, and it was used to attack and demean the Black students in class.”
The memo called for the professor to be “openly reprimanded for his behavior” and asked administrators to remove him from teaching required courses and place a notation in his employee file regarding “his inability to deal fairly with Black students.”
Peltz’s lawsuit contends the students also defamed him in an e-mail titled “Racial Tension Grows at UALR’s Law School,” sent to members of the W. Harold Flowers Law Society, requesting they attend a meeting between the Black Law Students Association and the dean. At the meeting, the students and W. Harold Flowers Law Society president Eric Spencer Buchanan made false accusations that damaged Peltz’s character, the lawsuit argues. Buchanan also requested Peltz be fired at a later meeting, according to the suit.
Two of the plaintiffs’ attorneys did not return voicemails seeking comment, and another attorney declined to comment.
Since the initial complaint was filed, the university removed Peltz from teaching required classes.
Chris Goff, project coordinator for the Free Exchange on Campus Coalition, said this lawsuit does not bode well for the free flow of ideas and opinions at universities and colleges because thrusting the matter into the judicial arena could reap damning effects.
“Using a lawsuit as a means to shut down what students can say in the classroom or ways they can express how they feel in a classroom really has the ability to put a damper on the free exchange of ideas on campus,” he said.
Goff said these types of teacher-against-student lawsuits are very rare. Other judicial processes on campus typically handle similar accusations, and he said those are the best means to reach a solution.
Limiting what students and professors can say in an academic environment could have devastating effects on research, how curricula are determined and how ideas are debated, Goff said.
“By trying to restrict that, you’re essentially sticking a thumb in the eye of the most important thing the American university has — academic freedom,” he said. “It’s the real thing that makes universities tick.”
Peltz, who specializes in communications and First Amendment law, said he, too, worries about the harm lawsuits can pose to academic openness. But he asserted he is not a racist, and the students’ accusing him of racism was defamation — speech not protected by the First Amendment.
“I’ve been an advocate for student press and speech and academic freedom, and I still am,” he said. “I ask people to consider that I know that, and I was forced to do this as a last resort.”
Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said it was “shocking” that a professor of constitutional law would resort to litigation instead of communication.
His organization’s stance is that bad or harmful speech should always be answered with more speech, Creeley said.
“It’s a betrayal of academic freedom to feel that one is entitled to not be challenged or be offended, so both the students and the professor would be far better served by continuing dialogues than by resorting to higher judiciary procedures.”
Fall 2008, reports