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The Ongoing Fight for Justice at Le Moyne

Scott McConnell, former graduate education student at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse, New York, filed a lawsuit this morning seeking reinstatement and compensation for Le Moyne’s violations of his civil rights. McConnell is being represented by New York civil rights attorney Samuel A. Abady and the Center for Individual Rights. FIRE announced the lawsuit in a press release today, along with other updates on the case.

 After FIRE had taken this case public in our first press release in mid-February, McConnell attempted to appeal Le Moyne’s decision to expel him from its graduate education program—but to no avail. McConnell wrote to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs John Smarrelli, Jr.:

Both the student handbook and the statements that Le Moyne College has made incline me to believe that in expelling me, Le Moyne College has violated its own mission of academic freedom. Nothing in the handbook, the acceptance letter, or any other information I received from Le Moyne states that my personal beliefs would or could play a part in my ultimate acceptance to or continuing involvement with the program. Indeed, according to a March 10, 2005, article in the New York Times, you yourself acknowledged that “Le Moyne had not warned students like [me] that they could be removed for expressing controversial beliefs, nor had the college said that education students must oppose corporal punishment or support multiculturalism.” My summary rejection from the program for violating rules that the college acknowledges that I could not have known about violates the most elementary standards of fairness and could have serious consequences for Le Moyne’s institutional reputation. I wish to resolve this situation as soon as possible, and I am confident that it would benefit both the college and me to bring this situation to a just and equitable conclusion.

Instead of granting McConnell a fair hearing and finding a just resolution, Smarrelli responded to McConnell that because he was only “conditionally accepted,” he essentially had never even been admitted into the program and was not entitled to any appeal on the decision—a decision based primarily on Le Moyne Graduate Education Department Chair Cathy Leogrande’s assessment that McConnell “appear[ed] to reject the values of the program.” But it’s Le Moyne’s denial of McConnell’s rights to academic freedom and due process that rejects the college’s values. McConnell had taken classes in the summer and a full course load during the fall semester for which he had received high grades. He even completed 64 hours of “excellent” practicum work in a Syracuse elementary school classroom. Can Le Moyne really claim that McConnell was not an “admitted” student who had to abide by the same rules and be guaranteed the same rights as any other student enrolled full-time and paying full tuition for his coursework? Also, while expelling a student with dissenting viewpoints is already bad enough, to expel a student who merely “appeared” to dissent is even worse—especially one with a 3.78 grade-point average.  McConnell was never told prior to the January dismissal letter that he had done anything in violation of Le Moyne’s policies. In addition, Smarrelli’s response completely ignores the fact that the justifications he had given the public for McConnell’s expulsion were that the administrators believed McConnell’s beliefs about classroom management constituted a “violation of New York State laws” and that Le Moyne “could not be confident that this individual would abide by the laws of New York State.” (See complaint for quotation sources.) Both of these reasons for expelling McConnell are legally and morally untenable. McConnell’s complaint points out that:

At no time did plaintiff ever state—orally or in writing—to anyone at Le Moyne College…that: (i) he would violate the law in any respect regarding his obligations as a teacher; (ii) he would violate teaching protocols established by any educational employer; (iii) he would refuse to obey any directives provided by his superiors in the education system; or (iv) he would do anything inconsistent with his obligations as a teacher certified by the State of New York or as a teacher employed by any school district within New York State.

Furthermore, in addition to academic freedom, Le Moyne’s student handbook promises due process, such as presumption of innocence and advanced notice of charges. As McConnell’s complaint states:

Under the heading “College Judicial System,” due process rights are published at pages 83-86 “to insure that students involved in such cases realize that their case has been processed in a fair and judicious manner,” and include the following: (i) presumption of innocence; (ii) advance, written notice of charges; (iii) entitlement to a judicial board hearing; (iv) entitlement to representation at the hearing by a Le Moyne student, faculty or staff member of the student’s choice; (v) freedom from discipline pending the outcome of the hearing except in cases of “a danger to the immediate well-being of the College community”; (vi) entitlement to present evidence and call witnesses; (vii) the hearing shall be recorded; (viii) entitlement to written notice of the outcome based solely on the evidence; and (ix) an appellate process.

McConnell was never granted these rights to due process before his expulsion, and the expression of his views in no way constituted “a danger to the immediate well-being of the College community.” Unfortunately, even after his letter of appeal, Le Moyne still chose to stand behind its gross violations of its own policies rather than admit that it had made a big mistake by expelling him. Instead of reverting to justice, fairness, and common sense, Le Moyne has pushed forward in defending its repressive actions. Let’s see how this defense holds up in the courtroom.

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