A DePaul professor who was suspended after having a spirited discussion about the Middle East with Muslim students sued the university and two of its officials for defamation yesterday.

Professor Thomas Klocek alleges the administrators wrongly characterized his arguments as racist and bigoted. He seeks damages against the school for maligning his “integrity and professional competence.”

Last September, Klocek attended a Student Activities Fair on the Chicago campus and happened to visit the table of the Students for Justice in Palestine, a statement announcing the lawsuit stated. After the professor took a handout that showed an Israeli bulldozer destroying a Palestinian house, he began discussing the Middle East with the students manning the table.

Klocek says one of the students likened the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to Hitler’s treatment of the Jewish people – a statement to which he took offense. The professor challenged the students by quoting an Arab source concluding that although most Muslims are not terrorists, most of today’s terrorists are Muslims.

The student group subsequently filed a complaint against Klocek with Dr. Susanne Dumbleton, dean of the School for New Learning, resulting in his suspension with pay. The dean took action without the normally required hearing.

Writing about the incident in the school paper, Dumbleton stated: “No student anywhere should ever have to be concerned that they will be verbally attacked for their religious belief or ethnicity.”

DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider also wrote a letter slamming Klocek, which was published in April in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News.

Wrote Holtschneider: “Last September, Klocek acted in a belligerent and menacing manner toward students who were passing out literature at a table in the cafeteria. He raised his voice, threw pamphlets at students, pointed his finger near their faces and displayed a gesture interpreted as obscene. … DePaul offered to give Klocek a spring quarter class assignment if he met with the students to apologize for his behavior and if the program director could drop by his class to ensure that the health issues that affected his teaching were resolved. He refused.”

Holtschneider’s letter is cited in the suit as an example of libel against Klocek, who says there was no shouting, throwing of paper, threats or obscene gestures exchanged during the argument.

As an adjunct professor, Klocek technically is hired quarter by quarter. Since he didn’t accept the university’s demand of an apology, Klocek did not teach in the spring quarter, nor was he paid.

Klocek’s attorney, John Mauck, said in a statement: “When Dean Dumbleton wrote in The DePaulia and characterized that professor Klocek attacked students’ ‘religious beliefs and ethnicity,’ DePaul hung a Scarlet ‘R’ of racism on a loyal and much loved professor who has served DePaul University for 14 years without complaint. DePaul worked to ruin Klocek’s reputation because of the content of his comments, not his conduct.”

Klocek flatly rejects DePaul’s demand he apologize for what he said.

“The university now demands (but has not always done so)an apology as a pre-condition to further employment,” said Klocek. “My question: For what specifically? To date, I have received no written charges. An apology for the content of my speech? For what I said? It would be wrong indeed to censure the students for their ideas and beliefs. However, the university administration, realizing that apologizing for my opinions would amount to an unwarranted censorship of ideas, now asks me to apologize for conduct in which I have not engaged.

“The draconian penalties to which I have been subjected are deeply distressing in light of the central issue here: free speech.”

The case was assigned to Judge David Donnersberger of the Cook County Circuit Court.

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