Amidst claims that he unfairly targets Black students and disparages affirmative action, an Arkansas law professor is suing two students who he says have damaged his reputation.
Richard J. Peltz, a professor at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, is also suing the university’s chapter of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), an Arkansas-based Black organization called the W. Harold Flowers Law Society and the president of that society.
Both students are members of the BLSA. Peltz alleges that all named in the lawsuit have defamed his character, caused irreparable harm to his reputation within the law school and the state’s legal community and have unjustly distorted his remarks about affirmative action in efforts to paint him as racist.
However, this action has spurred criticism, and many students and educators are concerned with the negative ramifications that the lawsuit may have on academic liberties and freedom of expression at university campuses nationwide.
According to the filed complaint, the conflict stems from a series of campus and classroom discussions about race and affirmative action. In a six-page memo to Charles Goldner, the law school’s dean, concerned students charge Peltz with saying that affirmative action gives “unqualified Black people chances over more qualified Whites.”
The students note that they have “no problem with the difference of opinion about affirmative action,” but accuse Peltz of invoking “hateful and inciting speech” that was used “to attack and demean the Black students in class.”
Students also claim that Peltz displayed a satirical article about the death of Rosa Parks and mocked the civil rights movement. The university’s chapter of the BLSA also asked that Peltz, who joined the school’s faculty in 1998, be restricted from teaching constitutional law “or any other required course where Black students would be forced to have him as a professor,” and that Peltz be required to participate in diversity training.
During a phone conversation Wednesday Peltz said, “We’ve agreed with the defendants not to talk to the media about the litigation,” and deferred comment to his attorney, John E. Tull.
However, Judy Williams, the university’s director of communications, says Peltz was removed from teaching all required courses after the lawsuit was filed.
“Since that time there has been some litigation on that very fact,” she says. “Except for stating that fact we can’t say (the reason) why because that is going to be part of what his litigation is.”
Jonathan Knight, director of the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, adds that this type of lawsuit is a rare occurrence.
“It’s highly unusual for faculty to bring a lawsuit against another member of the academic community,” he says, noting that legal actions like this one may serve to hinder the free flow of discussion that college classrooms thrive upon.
“I take no position on the merits of the case … however, one always hopes that faculty will do their utmost to try to deal with (issues such as this) in ways that do not resort to litigation,” he says. “There’s always a danger that a court of law may reach a decision that crimp or limit freedom of expression within the academic community.”
Williams adds that Dean Goldner recently issued a statement to faculty, staff and students of the law school regarding the pending litigation.
“The UALR Bowen School of Law is a vibrant, richly diverse and inclusive community of students, staff, and faculty. As a law school, we recognize that an individual is within his or her rights to file claims in our courts,” said Goldner, adding that he will continue his efforts to establish a more inclusive campus climate. “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.”
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