Law professor drops defamation suit against student group after school clears his name

ARKANSAS -- Richard Peltz, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, has dropped a defamation lawsuit against two former students and a law group after a school investigation determined that the charges of racism against him were unfounded.

In a letter to Peltz dated Oct. 2, law school Interim Dean John DiPippa wrote "with reference to any charge of racism levied against you, there is no evidence that you are or have been a racist or acted in a racist fashion during your employment at the law school."Peltz decided to drop his lawsuit during pre-trial motions because of the school's support, and the exoneration, which is what he wanted, he said.

"From the very beginning what I really wanted was for someone to say that it was OK to have this discussion in the classroom or for me to teach my course the way I wanted to teach it and for, also, the university to acknowledge the truth," he said.

Peltz filed the lawsuit in March 2008 against two former students and the school's Black Law Student Association after the students complained to the university that he, and other students, made racist comments during class discussions about affirmative action. The group asked that he not teach required courses. These charges were detailed in memos circulated by the group around the law school.

Peltz denied the claims, saying that the accusations in the memos were false and defamatory. After months of petitioning the school to step in or investigate, Peltz filed the lawsuit as a last resort, he said.

Peltz said he filed the suit to protect academic freedom as he worries that professors cannot have open discussion about controversial topics because of "excess sensitivity of a very few number of people."

"If I did not think student interests were at stake, I would never have sued. That is, I was really not bringing a suit just for my own interests," Peltz said. "I was bringing a suit for the academic freedom of myself and my students because the problems we have in the academy, generally, is that a very small group of people is able to use being offended as a way to squelch discussions about matters of public interest."

Peltz feels like the university's letter shows support for free discussion in the classroom, and while he worries that may not be entirely true, he thinks this decision is "a move in the right direction."

Peltz acceded to teaching only non-required courses this year, and said it worked out for the best because he was able to teach First Amendment law, his favorite. He said there has been no firm conclusion about what he will teach next year.

He admits to self-censoring by not having controversial discussions in class as he is still uncertain what degree of open discussion the university is willing to support and doesn't want to risk his job.

"I do more service teaching in an environment with possible restrictions than not teaching at all," he said.

Peltz said he is urging his colleagues and the law school to develop policies that reinforce academic freedom and create an internal resolution process. He wants the university to move toward an environment where professors don't have to fear having controversial conversations in class.

"But we're not there now," he said.

Peltz said in a perfect world, the defendants would agree with the university that he had done nothing improper and nothing inappropriate happened in the class discussion.

Arkansas, news, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

More Information

Ark. professor files defamation suit against students, the Report, 8/20/2008