Widener Law School Attempting to Fire Professor for Classroom Speech

March 23, 2011

WILMINGTON, Del., Mar. 23, 2011Widener University School of Law is attempting to fire longtime criminal law professor Lawrence Connell by charging him with dubious violations of the school’s harassment code, such as using the term “black folks” in class and using the names of law school Dean Linda L. Ammons and other law school colleagues as characters in class hypotheticals. Although a faculty panel has already recommended that Widener drop its “dismissal for cause” proceedings against Connell, administrators have reportedly induced students to issue further complaints under a new process that forces Connell to keep the details of the proceedings secret. Connell, who is represented by attorney Thomas S. Neuberger, also requested help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“Not only do the charges against Professor Connell appear to be either unsubstantiated or totally meritless, but even after the faculty refused to assent to his firing Widener has found a new, ‘confidential’ procedure to use against him,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Professor Connell has already addressed the charges, but now he cannot publicly discuss the details of his prosecution out of fear of punishment for ‘retaliatory action’ if he reveals them.”

Widener originally charged Connell with a long list of supposed violations, many of which were redundant. Among them was his use of the term “black folks” to describe African-Americans, which Widener apparently sees as necessarily racist despite the fact that it is widely used by people including President Barack Obama. Other allegations involved Connell’s use of hypothetical examples of violent crimes in his criminal law courses that featured law school faculty and staff, such as law school dean Linda L. Ammonseven though such hypotheticals are a longstanding tradition in law schools across the country. Other charges are taken out of context, while still others, such as an alleged statement that “all criminals are poor and all poor are black folk” are statements Professor Connell unequivocally denies ever making.

Connell’s ordeal began on December 10, 2010, when Vice Dean J. Patrick Kelly presented him with a binder full of charges alleging violations of Widener’s Faculty Member Discrimination and Harassment Code. According to Connell, Kelly informed him on December 20 that Ammons had placed Connell on administrative leave. On February 24, 2011, Ammons wrote a letter recommending that Connell be dismissed from the university.

Connell addressed the charges in a 39-page affidavit on March 8, 2011. In the affidavit, Connell details his presentations of a number of legal cases both in and out of class, and explains how his presentations were misrepresented by a small number of complaining students. He also denies calling a female police officer “honey,” notes that there is nothing discriminatory or harassing about using the term “black folks,” and notes that it is impossible to defend against such vague and ambiguous allegations as that a professor made “racist and sexist comments” in class. Connell also denies making any racist or sexist comments in any classroom.

Tellingly, on March 7, the Informal Committee of Inquiry handling Connell’s case at Widener recommended that the dismissal proceedings be dropped. Yet Connell’s ordeal did not end there. According to Neuberger, on March 10, law school Dean Linda Ammons had two law students “refile their prior false charges against Connell.”

FIRE cannot independently investigate the students’ side of the story because Connell is prohibited from naming them or detailing their charges out of fear of being punished for retaliation. Widener’s Faculty Member Discrimination and Harassment Code provides that “[d]issemination of information relating to the case should be limited in order that the privacy of all individuals involved is safeguarded as fully as possible [...] to protect the Complainant from retaliatory action by those named in the Complaint.” Retaliation can be punished with dismissal from the university.

Although Widener is a private university, it has publicly committed itself to protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression on its website and in official documents.

Yesterday, on March 22, FIRE wrote Widener University President James T. Harris III, asking him to respect Connell’s academic freedom and bring this case to a quick end.

“All signs indicate that Widener University School of Law’s senior administration is stringing together vague, ambiguous, misconstrued, and downright false allegations in order to force a tenured professor out of the law school,” FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley said. “We urge people to write President Harris and ask him why Widener is continuing to pursue these seemingly meritless charges against one of its own professors.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:
Robert L. Shibley, Senior Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; robert@thefire.org
James T. Harris III, President, Widener University: 610-499-4101; presoffc@widener.edu

TAKE ACTION: Contact Widener University today and tell it to respect its promises of free speech and academic freedom.

Schools: Widener University School of Law Cases: Widener University: Law School Threatens Professor’s Academic Freedom