Widener Law Prof Sues Dean for Defamation

Ashley Thorne

Today Lawrence Connell, the professor who was suspended from teaching at the Widener University law school after two students complained about the examples he used in his first-year criminal law course, filed suit for defamation against the law school dean, Linda Ammons.

On February 24, 2011, Dean Ammons submitted a Statement of Reasons for Dismissal for Cause for Professor Connell. The allegations accused him of exhibiting racism and sexism in his teaching, among other charges. On March 7, a committee set up to investigate these charges determined that the University should withdraw the Dismissal for Cause action. On March 16, Connell’s lawyer Thomas Neuberger issued a press release stating that Dean Ammons had chosen to disregard the recommendation and had ordered the two students to re-file their complaints against Connell. (The university issued its own release declaring its commitment to due process and a fair trial.)

According to Neuberger, the case will now go to a university hearing in which the panel is composed almost entirely of administrators, not faculty members, and where the lawyer will not be allowed to cross-examine witnesses. It is in light of this impending hearing and Professor Connell’s view that he will inevitably be fired that he is bringing this lawsuit today. He believes Dean Ammons is seeking to remove him because he is a conservative, a belief he explains in his interview with NAS.

Professor Connell denied all charges against him in his 39-page affidavit, and regarding the allegation of racism, he states in today’s press release:

As a volunteer lawyer I fought for 10 years and saved the life of a condemned Black man sitting on death row waiting to be executed who had been convicted by an all White jury from whom the prosecutor had excluded all African-Americans. No man who fights without pay to save the life of a Black man is a racist and Ammons knows this but she declared me to be a racist anyway to get rid of me and cleanse her liberal law school of one of its only two conservative law professors out of over 60 faculty.

He refers here to his successful effort to save James Riley from the death penalty, which he describes in the NAS interview.

One of the examples that Professor Connell used in class which was cited by the two students as offensive was his illustration of the difference between murder and intent to murder. He constructed a “hypothetical” in which he becomes outraged that Dean Ammons has stolen his parking spot, goes to her office to kill her, but instead shoots a pumpkin that has been disguised to look like her.

Orin Kerr, a leading criminal law professor who teaches at George Washington University and blogs at The Volokh Conspiracy, has written an affidavit for the university disciplinary proceedings, testifying that using hypotheticals such as the one above is a standard practice among criminal law professors. He writes, “In my experience, one common method used by criminal law professors to make the tragic and depressing subjects of Criminal Law somewhat light and entertaining is to use absurd examples of criminals and victims drawn from the law school faculty.” In addition to their entertainment value, these hypotheticals “train students to focus on the legal questions quite apart from the identity of the individuals involved, which is an essential skill for a lawyer.”

Kerr also deals with Connell’s discussion of People v. Goetz, a famous case in which a white man shot four young black men. Connell says in his affidavit:

The unfortunate reality of urban crime explains why some people, of all races, fear young black men. While that fear may lead to unfortunate and erroneous stereotyping, it nonetheless exists. It is a fair question to ask whether Goetz experienced that fear and acted on it, or whether he never felt in imminent danger whatsoever. (Page 9)

He says that he quoted Jesse Jackson, who said that if he was approached by a group of young black men he would cross the street to avoid contact with them. Kerr notes that “Prof. Connell’s teaching of the Goetz case is well within the usual norms of Criminal Law professors,” and that students are often offended by the treatment of race when this case is taught. Some students take offense if the discussion includes a treatment of race; some take offense if it ignores race. Either way, the case is tricky and it is easy for students to have emotional reactions.

Many students, however, could not imagine how Professor Connell could have deserved to be suspended from teaching and were “shocked,” “outraged,” “saddened,” and “confused” by the allegations against him. Twenty-nine of his students emailed him to express their support and appreciation for his teaching. Many said that he was their favorite professor; that everyone they had talked to was behind him; and that they were willing if needed to testify on his behalf. One student wrote, “I...have been trying to think of a single incident in class where any of these claims would hold water...You never said anything along the lines of the accusations against you.” Another, “the long-haired student at the end of the second row,” wrote that even though he disagreed with Connell politically, he learned “more in [Connell’s] Fall 2010 Criminal Procedure class than any other class that semester.”

Our friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to the Widener University president two weeks ago asking him to respect Professor Connell’s academic freedom and to drop the charges against him. Like FIRE, we at NAS cannot investigate the charges because Connell is prohibited from naming the students who brought them for fear of retaliation, but we are deeply concerned about what appears in all respects to be a blatant assault on academic freedom.

An attempt to fire a faculty member for classroom practice that falls entirely within the standards of the field is abusive. And if Professor Connell is correct that the university’s adverse actions are motivated in part by bias against his conservative views, the abuse is even more egregious. We’ll continue to report as events in this case unfold.

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