ARKANSAS — Richard Peltz, a law professor at the University ofArkansas at Little Rock, has dropped a defamation lawsuit against two formerstudents and a law group after a school investigation determined that thecharges of racism against him were unfounded.
In a letter to Peltz dated Oct. 2, law school Interim Dean John DiPippawrote “with reference to any charge of racism levied against you, there isno evidence that you are or have been a racist or acted in a racist fashionduring your employment at the law school.”Peltz decided to drop hislawsuit during pre-trial motions because of the school’s support, and theexoneration, which is what he wanted, he said.
“From the very beginning what I really wanted was for someone to say thatit was OK to have this discussion in the classroom or for me to teach my coursethe way I wanted to teach it and for, also, the university to acknowledge thetruth,” he said.
Peltz filed the lawsuit in March 2008 against two former students and theschool’s Black Law Student Association after the students complained tothe university that he, and other students, made racist comments during classdiscussions about affirmative action. The group asked that he not teach requiredcourses. These charges were detailed in memos circulated by the group aroundthe law school.
Peltz denied the claims, saying that the accusations in the memos werefalse and defamatory. After months of petitioning the school to step in orinvestigate, Peltz filed the lawsuit as a last resort, he said.
Peltz said he filed the suit to protect academic freedom as he worries thatprofessors 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 havesued. 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 mystudents because the problems we have in the academy, generally, is that a verysmall group of people is able to use being offended as a way to squelchdiscussions about matters of public interest.”
Peltz feels like the university’s letter shows support for free discussionin the classroom, and while he worries that may not be entirely true, he thinksthis decision is “a move in the right direction.”
Peltz acceded to teaching only non-required courses this year, and said itworked out for the best because he was able to teach First Amendment law, hisfavorite. He said there has been no firm conclusion about what he will teachnext year.
He admits to self-censoring by not having controversial discussions inclass as he is still uncertain what degree of open discussion the university iswilling to support and doesn’t want to risk his job.
“I do more service teaching in an environment with possible restrictionsthan not teaching at all,” he said.
Peltz said he is urging his colleagues and the law school to developpolicies that reinforce academic freedom and create an internal resolutionprocess. He wants the university to move toward an environment where professorsdon’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 theuniversity that he had done nothing improper and nothing inappropriate happenedin the class discussion.