Syracuse Grad Student in Philosophy Sues His Instructors for Alleged Libel

A graduate student in Philosophy at Syracuse University who is suing members of his department for alleged libel said last night he will not leave school because "someone's got to stay and fight."

Thomas B. White, a third-year graduate student, filed four suits last May against Syracuse Philosophy Department faculty for what he said were libelous and slanderous attacks after he had criticized the department in a letter to the chairman.

White said last night that the suits, in both the federal district court and the New York district supreme court, will go on the docket when he retains a lawyer. He said he is awaiting word from the Student Legal Services at Syracuse on giving him legal counsel.

The faculty is pressuring him to drop out, White said, but he added that he will not because "the quality of academic freedom" is at issue.

No Suits Here


Daniel Steiner '54, general counsel to the University, said yesterday that he cannot recall any similar suit at Harvard. "There are claims every now and then that a department or a faculty is not willing to take criticism. or is close-minded, but there has never been a suit," Steiner said.

White's difficulties began when he wrote a letter in May 1973 to Stewart Thau, associate professor of Philosophy and chairman of the department at Syarcuse. White charged that the graduate program had been "diluted" by other disciplines such as linguistics, that the students it admitted to the Ph.D. program were not qualified, and that the department did not teach philosophy.

Thau wrote back to White, in late May "...I do not see how you could reconcile your opinions of our program with a decision to remain in it, except, perhaps for the expedient of taking a Master's degree."

White now charges that this statement is libelous, because it allegedly impugned his academic integrity. He says that the letter was "published"--and meets the qualification of the definition of libel--because a copy was sent to the dean of the college.

Thau said yesterday that University lawyers have told him that correspondence White claims is libelous is "privileged information," between academics, and is not subject to libel law.

The department chairman also said, "No attempt has been made by our department to harass White out of the department."

On June 22, 1973, following a second letter from White to Thau, Peter van Inwagen, assistant professor of Philosophy and director of graduate studies, wrote to the student.

Inwagen said of the second letter, "One could no more reply to it than one could reply to a Hitler speech or a tub-thumping backwoods revivalist sermon."

He also wrote, "So help me, young man, if you ever use such language to my face as you use in your letters to Professor Thau, I shall throw you out of my office."

White claims in his federal suit that this passage shows that Inwagen "maliciously intended to prevent Plaintiff from exercising his right to express his free speech," and that he never used obsene or profane terms in his letters.

Inwagen concluded his letter, "You present us with a difficult pedagogical problem. Before we can teach you anything, we must first dispel your delusions of philosophical grandeur. But you are so arrogant in you ignorance that I doubt whether this is possible."

White said that this letter could constitute libel because it was "published" on department of philosophy stationery and was hence not a personal letter.

In his suits, for a total of $700,000 in damages, White names two other defendants, both academics in the Philosophy Department