Ammons Retaliates Against Exonerated Law Professor

Ashley Thorne

Although he was exonerated by Widener University from charges of sexual and racial discrimination, the university’s president has, on Dean Linda Ammons’s recommendation, suspended law professor Lawrence Connell from teaching.

On July 20, the university hearing committee designated to adjudicate Connell’s case found that:

  1. There is not clear and convincing evidence that Professor Connell has violated the Code pertaining to racial harassment or sexual discrimination.
  2. There is clear and convincing evidence that Professor Connell has violated the Code pertaining to retaliation.

William A. Jacobson, associate clinical professor at CornellLawSchool, writes at the blog Legal Insurrection that the committee report,

while it ultimately vindicates Connell, is a depressing narrative of the sorry state of political correctness and race/sex politics on campus, in which the feelings and reaction of accusers carry as much weight as the objective reality of the statements made.  While Connell was vindicated on a wide range of charges, this case surely will have a chilling effect on academic freedom on campuses as professors now know that regardless of the context, they are at risk of the subjective feelings of those with an agenda.

“The Code,” referred to in the report is Widener University’s Discrimination and Harassment Code, which says, “The University prohibits retaliation against any individual who files a complaint in good faith or who participates in a discrimination and/or harassment inquiry.” The Code does not define retaliation but states that “Individuals found to have participated in retaliatory action in contravention of this Code shall be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal from employment and/or expulsion.”

Jacobson writes, “the only conduct of Connell himself which the committee found violated university policy were emails he sent to the student population defending himself against false accusations of racism and sexism.”

Law school dean Linda Ammons, who had advanced the original charges against Professor Connell by having the two students file complaints against him, used this finding of retaliation as the basis of her recommendation to the university president to suspend Connell. Ammons had a personal grievance against Professor Connell: one of the allegations in the complaint was that Connell had referred in his class to murdering her. Connell acknowledged that he had done so in a hypothetical to demonstrate to students in his criminal law class the subtle variations of intent to murder.

In an interview with NAS, Professor Connell described his hypotheticals; Orin Kerr, a leading criminal law professor who teaches at George Washington University, confirmed in an affidavit that Connell’s use of “absurd examples” is well within the norms of the discipline. Dean Ammons, who is a black woman, took the examples personally as instances of racism and sexism.

She has been relentless in pushing this case forward. After a faculty committee recommended that the university drop charges against Connell, Ammons directed the two students to re-file their complaints. And even now that Connell has been cleared of the original charges of racial and sexual discrimination, she refused to let the case drop. She wrote to President Harris recommending that Connell be suspended for a year without pay, be banned from campus, be compelled to acknowledge in writing that he violated “the Code,” be forced to undergo a psychological evaluation, and be compelled to write an apology to the students who filed the complaint against him. President Harris quickly decided to adopt all of Ammons’s disciplinary suggestions.

Thomas Neuberger, Connell’s lawyer, said in an email, “The court this week granted our motion to add the university to Larry’s defamation case along with the two students.  The president’s haste to punish Larry and in effect terminate him from the faculty is now further proof of both Ammon’s and its ill will and bad faith concerning Larry.”

David Bernstein, Foundation Professor at George Mason University School of Law, wrote at the Volokh Conspiracy that Widener must be “oblivious to the long-term damage this is doing to the law school’s and university’s reputation.” He continued, “I hope Connell wins his lawsuit, and wins big. Meanwhile, if any of our readers are considering attending Widener, I recommend looking elsewhere–anywhere else. If Connell can be abused in this way, so can you.”

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