‘If You Can’t Teach ‘Em, Sue ‘Em’

June 12, 2008

An editorial in The Southeast Texas Record yesterday raised concerns about professors’ use of actual or threatened legal action against students over allegedly damaging speech. The article, entitled "If You Can’t Teach ‘Em, Sue ‘Em," reviewed several recent examples of this phenomenon. In one case,

At Dartmouth College, English instructor Priya Venkatesan announced plans to sue the students who were so unreceptive to her literary theories of narrative that the result was, as Ms. Venkatesan describes it, a hostile work environment. "My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful" she says. "They’d argue with your ideas."

Attorney John Browning, who authored the editorial, noted: "Silly meI thought that kind of discourse was a part of the whole point of college in the first place."

The editorial also discusses the case of University of Arkansas law professor Richard Peltz, who is suing several of his former law students for defamation for accusing him of racism in the wake of comments he made about affirmative action (for a detailed discussion of Peltz’s case, see Adam’s treatment of the matter here). Regarding Peltz’s case, FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate said that he "considers it ‘shocking’ that a professor of constitutional law would sue ‘rather than rely on academic freedom in an effort to explain why his views on affirmative action are not racist.’"

For his part, Browning believes that the prevalence of speech codes on college campuses has created the environment in which these types of lawsuits can flourish. He concludes:

With the advent of "speech codes" prohibiting offensive speech about race, religion, and sexcodes that are in effect at an estimated 90 percent of American colleges and universitiesfree speech has actually been restricted in higher education…should we really be surprised when, in order to protect their rights under the First Amendment, individuals turn to the Seventh Amendment?