On bad days, there are no doubt plenty of professors who have joked about suing students. But it is pretty rare that somebody actually does so. A law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has -- and the ramifications could extend well beyond his dispute.
Richard J. Peltz is suing two students who are involved in the university's chapter of the Black Law Student Association, the association itself, and another individual who is affiliated with a black lawyers' group. Peltz charges them with defamation, saying that his comments about affirmative action were used unfairly to accuse him of racism in a way that tarnished his reputation.
Suing students for what they have said about you is rare if not unheard of, but the topic has suddenly come up not only at Little Rock's law school, but at Dartmouth College. There, a former instructor recently sent several former students e-mail indicating that she was planning a suit. Robert B. Donin, general counsel of the college, issued a statement in which he said: "We have determined that there is no basis for such action, and we have advised the students and faculty members of this."
Since the suit that has been filed in Arkansas has been reported by The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, students and faculty there have considered the ramifications -- but mostly among themselves. There is considerable concern at the university -- and some elsewhere -- about what it means to open exchange of ideas to have a professor sue his students.
The dispute over Peltz concerns his opposition to affirmative action -- and how he expressed it. Complicating matters is that no one who was present when the statements were actually made is discussing them. Those Peltz sued did not respond to messages, and he was willing to e-mail only a very general discussion of what happened. In examples of the defamatory material that were submitted with his suit, however, the view of the black student organization about his actions becomes clear.
In a memo sent to Charles Goldner, dean of the law school, the students accuse Peltz of engaging in a "rant" about affirmative action, of saying that affirmative action helps "unqualified black people," of displaying a satirical article from The Onion about the death of Rosa Parks, of allowing a student to give "incorrect facts" about a key affirmative action case, of passing out a form on which he asked for students' name and race and linking this form to grades, and of denigrating black students in a debate about affirmative action, among other charges.
The student memo said that the organization had "no problem with the difference of opinion about affirmative action," but that Peltz's actions were "hateful and inciting speech" and were used "to attack and demean the black students in class."
The black student group demanded that Peltz be "openly reprimanded," that he be barred from teaching constitutional law "or any other required course where black students would be forced to have him as a professor," that the university mention in his personnel file that he is unable "to deal fairly with black students," and that he be required to attend diversity training.
While Peltz in an e-mail said he could not discuss the case in detail, he suggested -- as have his supporters -- that the accusations that he was unfair to black students were a misrepresentation of his criticism of affirmative action. For example, he said that he was invited by the Black Law Students Association to debate affirmative action and to take the anti- position.
And while not relating this action directly to what is described in the suit, he wrote the following by e-mail about what may be the form asking for students' race. "Unrelated to the debate and in the ordinary course of my Constitutional Law class in the fall of 2005, I taught the usual and scheduled material on affirmative action. To stimulate discussion, I presented students with an exercise by handing out a adapted version of the form that the Arkansas state government uses to hire personnel. All students were offered credit to participate. Responding to skeptical student questions, I argued in favor of affirmative action. My teaching method spurred a productive class discussion."
After Peltz filed the suit, he was removed from teaching all required courses -- a fact that the university confirmed but declined to explain, saying that it related both to personnel issues and litigation. Goldner, the dean, sent students and professors an e-mail in which he said that "we recognize that an individual is within his or her rights to file claims in our courts. We also take seriously our obligation to provide our students the environment they need in order to receive the best possible education. Part of that obligation includes working to be an institution in which all members -- faculty, students, and staff -- are free to openly voice opinions and concerns."
Goldner pledged to continue to work to create a "diverse and inclusive community."
Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom and governance issues for the American Association of University Professors, said he was concerned about the suit -- regardless of whether Peltz was unfairly maligned by his students. "A suit like this, as I'm sure the professor knows, can have troubling implications for academic freedom," Knight said. "When you ask a court to become involved in making judgments about the metes and bounds of free expression on campus, it can be dangerous." He noted, for example, that legal standards about the free exchange of ideas -- some of them unpleasant -- "are not co-equal with the standards of the academic community."
Generally, Knight said that the worries about courts settling such matters are such that professors need to be "thickly armored" when it comes to comments from colleagues or students. If a professor is being unfairly criticized, it is far better for fellow faculty members or a dean to come to his or her defense than for the scholar to go to court, Knight said.
Noting that professors "typically do not restrain themselves" when talking about other professors' research, Knight said that "when one enters the academic community, it's with the understanding that lots of things might well be said which cast one in a very unpleasant light."