In March, University of Arkansas-Little Rock Law Professor Richard J. Peltz sued two of his students for defamation after the latter accused him of being a racist, a charge he denies. (Although the lawsuit was filed in March, I just learned about it from the NY Times story that first ran today.) I have been unable to find an online copy of the complaint but the core of the case appears to be this: (1) Professor Peltz is an outspoken critic of affirmative action. (2) He also least insensitive to student concerns about racial justice, as evidenced by, among other things, his in-class display of this article from The Onion. (I would note, by the way, that the piece, as satire, could easily be read as supportive of the civil rights movement, given the implausibility of its central point---that American society has finally moved beyond race. However, given the other views of Professor Peltz, his students may well have been right to read his use of the piece as meant to belittle the civil rights movement. Context matters). (3) Students in Professors Peltz's class and the school's chapter of the Black Law Students Association accused him of racism. (4) Thus, he sued them. Although other stories around the web suggest that Professor Peltz also thought that the school administration did too little to defend him against the charges, the school is not a defendant.
Where to begin? The man-bites-dog quality of the story is delightful, of course. Surely every law professor has at some time worried that an ill-considered comment he or she made, or a bad grade he or she conferred, would result in a lawsuit by a student, but I'll bet it had not occurred to most law professors---it certainly hadn't occurred to me---that we could be the plaintiffs suing our students for, say, lousy course evaluations.
There is also the double irony of this case:
Irony 1. Professor Peltz was not well-known outside of Arkansas legal circles before the filing of this lawsuit, but he is well-known now, and what he is known for is being the law professor who sued his students for accusing him of racism. Arguably, his reputation suffers a much greater injury from the bringing of the lawsuit than from the underlying charges. That's often true of defamation suits by people who are not previously well known.
Irony 2. Professor Peltz teaches First Amendment law and, judging by the titles of his publications and the news of the lawsuit itself, appears to believe in free speech as an affirmative good. It is not hard to see him arguing that the students, in branding him a racist simply for strongly disagreeing with their policy views---for his political incorrectness, in other words---were trying to shut down his expression of those views. But of course, suing students for expressing their own views is not exactly a speech-friendly act.
I don't know nearly enough about the underlying facts to form a clear view about the merits of the suit, but I'd still be surprised if it succeeds. It's almost always a bad idea to call someone a "racist" unless he's an active member of the Klan, defender of slavery or segregation, or what-have-you, but that's as a matter of the social rules of discourse.
The students will almost certainly argue that in calling Professor Peltz a "racist" they were expressing an opinion, rather than making a claim of fact, much in the way that one of my students could defend himself if I sued him for calling me, say, an "asshole." The student-defendant in my hypothetical lawsuit would not be obliged to show that I am, literally, an anus, or even that I am, on balance, a mean person. "Racist," like "asshole," is an all-things-considered evaluative term meant to express the speaker's negative judgment. And the First Amendment overlay on defamation law protects such opinion statements that are not meant to be taken as fact. So unless Professor Peltz can show that the defendants made false statements of fact---e.g., stating he attended Klan rallies when he did not---his lawsuit faces serious obstacles.
Posted by Mike Dorf