Widener Law School Attempting to Fire Professor for Classroom Speech

By on March 24, 2011

Yesterday’s press release tells the story of Widener University School of Law Professor Lawrence Connell, who is facing an unjustifiable harassment investigation for reasons unknown. Actually, Widener has provided the "reasons"you can read them herebut this is one of those situations in which you know something is wrong about the accusations just by reading the accusations themselves. Let’s take a few of them now:

  • The use of the term "black folk/s" is necessarily racist: The term "black folks" is cited three times in law school Dean Linda Ammons’ letter explaining why she believes a tenured law professor should be fired for cause. More specifically, the accusation states that "Referring to African Americans as ‘Black folk’ implies that they are uneducated, uncultured, and undeserving of respect by the justice system."

    As we point out in our press release, this is news to us and would undoubtedly come as news to President Barack Obama, who uses the term "folks" to describe all sorts of people, including African Americans. (Entering "President Obama folks" into Google amply demonstrates this.) Here are more examples, per the letter we sent to Widener President James T. Harris, III yesterday:

    The first African-American to earn a doctorate at Harvard, W. E. B. Du Bois, used the term in his classic work The Souls of Black Folk as well as The Gift of Black Folk and Black Folk, Then and Now. In the past month, the term "black folks" has been used by columnist Arlene Jones in the Austin Weekly News, columnist Charing Ball in The Atlanta Post, scholar Boyce Watkins at the website thyblackman.com, and many others.

    The widespread use of the term is strong evidence that it is not, as far as most people are concerned, a negatively loaded term. In fact, it usually signifies some sense of familiarity or friendliness. As we write in our letter, "[i]t is a ubiquitous term that has no necessary relationship to discriminatory or harassing behavior." The fact, then, that Widener saw fit to include the term three times in a letter accusing Connell of "harassment" raises more questions than answers.

  • It was inappropriate for Connell to use Dean Ammons’ name in violent crime hypotheticals: Let’s keep in mind that Connell is a criminal law professor, and "hypotheticals" — creative fact patterns presented to law students to test their ability to spot relevant legal issues — are an integral part of law school teaching, particularly in criminal law. Was it inappropriate for Connell to use the dean’s name or the names of his colleagues in these hypotheticals? Not in the least– law professors do it all the time. As George Washington University law professor and Volokh Conspiracy contributor Orin Kerr recently wrote, using such names to lighten up otherwise extremely grim hypotheticals is commonplace. I know it happened in my Criminal Law class in law school, and my admittedly unscientific survey of FIRE lawyers shows that this was true other places as well. Construing these hypotheticals as hostility towards your colleagues without other evidence is beyond sillyand there’s no sign of any further such evidence against Connell from Widener.
  • Connell allegedly said "all criminals are poor and all poor are black folk": First, it’s important to note that Connell absolutely denies saying this and the other racist and sexist remarks he is accused of making. "Of course he does," you might respond. But it’s also important to note that these statements were allegedly made in one of his Spring 2010 classes. This statement is so obviously false (there are no poor white people?) and so over-the-top that unless Connell was literally lecturing to an empty room, there is basically no chance that nobody would have raised a concern about it until months later. In my law school class, questions would have been raised immediately, and people would certainly have walked out of class. Further, in order to believe and to say this, Professor Connell would have to be almost unimaginably dumband you don’t have to read much of his 39-page affidavit to realize that he’s not.

I could go on, but Connell’s affidavit does an excellent job of skewering Widener’s attempt to railroad him out of a job.

Widener’s treatment of Connell is an affront not only to academic freedom and free speech, but also, in fact, to legitimate, proper, widely-accepted pedagogy in law school. As a professor at an institution committed to free speech and academic freedom, Connell is entitled to a significant degree of latitude in classroom discussion of topics and viewpoints that are germane to his course. Here, Connell appears to have been by all accounts well within this latitude in terms of his expression and use of hypotheticals. And, as I already noted, the use of creative hypotheticalsincluding hypotheticals using the names of real people familiar to the studentsis a common occurrence in the law school setting.

What’s worse, by threatening Connell’s career at the school over these allegations, Widener has no doubt cast a serious chill on discussion and debate at the law school, both in the classroom and outside of it. What student or faculty member at the law school is going to feel comfortable (or, at least, as comfortable as he or she may have felt prior to this case) expressing views on touchy, hot-button issues when such expression may well subject the speaker to this same kind of investigation, and possibly even worse consequences? The harms from this case extend well beyond its immediate impact on Connell, and the likely result is that students and faculty at the law school will enjoy a less fulfilling educational environment because too many people are (understandably) afraid to speak freely.

Academia can be an ugly place. In attacking Professor Lawrence Connell, Widener has just done its part to make it even uglier.

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