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Embattled Widener Law Professor Adds Student Defendants in Defamation Lawsuit

FIRE has been following the story of Widener University School of Law Professor Lawrence Connell, whose law school is attempting to fire him on the basis of extremely outlandish allegations about statements that supposedly violate the school's harassment code. His alleged offenses include 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 hypothetical case scenarios for his criminal law class (a common practice in law school, as we've discussed). Although a faculty committee recommended the charges against him be dismissed, Dean Ammons and the Widener administration refiled charges against him using another, more secretive, process.

With his job on the line, Professor Connell filed suit in Delaware state court in April against Dean Ammons on several claims of libel and slander. His complaint discusses six alleged defamatory acts against him by Dean Ammons. Connell is seeking compensatory and punitive damages in an unspecified amount, as well as legal costs.

All of this was enough to earn Widener University a Campus Muzzle "Double Muzzle" from FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate last week in The Boston Phoenix.

But that's not all. On the Fourth of July, Connell filed an amended complaint, adding as defendants Widener University and its law school as well as the two law students who made the outlandish allegations. I encourage you to read the amended complaint to see even more of the wild allegations. As Robert said in our March 23 press release, "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." That is ever more the case.

And that's still not all. It appears that Widener officials intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence when it came time to report on and punish Connell. According to an affidavit filed at Widener by another one of Connell's students, she was interviewed by Widener University School of Law Vice Dean J. Patrick Kelly in November. She told Kelly that she found nothing discriminatory or harassing in any of Connell's teaching, that the complaining students seemed to be biased against him and naive about the real world, and that Connell was a great teacher and she would take a course from him in the future:

I told Kelly that I felt that the students who complained about Connell either had too much time on their hands or were so naive that their opinions should not hold much weight.... I told Kelly that the people who brought these complaints need to grow up and deal with people they don't like in a professional manner. The complainants need to learn that just because you may not agree with a professor on how they teach or even what they teach, this doesn't mean that the professor needs to get into trouble.

That last point is quite right and is consistent with Widener's public commitment to protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression as expressed on its website and in official documents. Yet, Kelly insisted that she must keep her interview confidential, and it seems that Kelly withheld such exculpatory evidence and focused only on the two students with personal complaints.

It is rare for a professor to sue or threaten to sue a student (here are a couple of examples) or for a school to do so (here are a couple of examples). As for Widener, my feeling is that it should stop digging itself deeper into such a wide and embarrassing hole of shame. We'll let you know what happens next in this case.

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