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Del. law school professor sues dean for defamation

WILMINGTON, Del. — A Widener University law professor facing accusations of racism and sexism filed a defamation lawsuit against the school’s dean on Friday, claiming that he has been deemed a threat to the school and targeted for dismissal because of his teaching methods and his conservative political and legal views.

Lawrence Connell, a tenured professor who is white, also alleges that Dean Linda Ammons, who is black, is upset that he has used her in attention-grabbing hypothetical crime scenarios he uses in his criminal law classes.

“She set out to destroy him because of his conservative beliefs,” Connell’s attorney, Thomas Neuberger, said after filing the lawsuit in Sussex County Superior Court.

In a statement issued by a spokeswoman for the Wilmington law school, Ammons said she had not yet been served with the complaint but would not respond to Connell’s allegations in the media.

“However, if there is a lawsuit, it will be vigorously defended and I look forward to the truth coming out in a court of law,” Ammons said. “In the meantime, Widener Law will continue to follow university codes for handling the multiple complaints of students against Professor Connell.”

Connell was placed on leave in December after two students complained about language and hypothetical scenarios he has used in his criminal law classes. In a Dec. 10 letter to Connell, Vice-Dean J. Patrick Kelly said his office had received a letter from students “deeply concerned and offended” about Connell’s statements and characterizations about minorities and women, and violent scenarios he used in the classroom.

Ammons met with the students in December and, according to court records, banned Connell from campus that same month, claiming he posed a threat to her and others. In February, Ammons filed a written statement outlining reasons for seeking Connell’s dismissal and suggesting that he was violating the school’s code by refusing to meet with Kelly without an attorney, or to participate in an informal grievance process.

In the statement, Ammons recited the student complaints against Connell, including his use of the term “black folks,” calling a female police officer “honey,” and suggesting that “all criminals are poor and all poor are black folk.”

In an affidavit, Connell admitted that he often uses the word “folks” and sometimes use profanity in class for dramatic effect to drive home a point, but he denies that he made racially disparaging statements.

Connell said Friday that many faculty members use profanity, and that other professors use hypothetical situations and scenarios to get students’ attention.

“The material can be so depressing when you think about it … so you try to do something to lighten the atmosphere,” said Connell, who uses himself and other faculty members, both black and white, in his scenarios.

One of the scenarios that prompted a complaint involves Ammons as the victim of an attempted murder by Connell.

In one version of the scenario, Connell goes to Ammons’ office to shoot her but winds up shooting a pumpkin “ingeniously painted to look like her.” He then asks students whether he can be convicted of attempted murder.

“Ammons was infuriated and angered that she had been used in such teaching examples,” Connell said in his lawsuit. “She felt that her dignity was impugned and that she had been called ‘a pumpkin head.'”

While Ammons has taken steps to fire Connell, many of his students have written to him to express their support and offer to testify on his behalf.

Last month, an informal board of inquiry recommended that the dismissal action be withdrawn, but Ammons refused to accept the panel’s recommendation. Ammons said in a letter to the panel that Connell’s refusal to participate in the informal inquiry was a serious breach of his obligations, but that she would halt the dismissal proceedings pending the outcome of formal complaints that were subsequently filed against him under the school’s discrimination and harassment code.

In a March 27 opinion letter published in the Wilmington daily newspaper, Ammons suggested that Connell was attempting to manipulate the media rather than follow the disciplinary process that applies to all Widener employees.

“Contrary to allegations made by the professor’s attorney, no students were coerced to file complaints,” she added.

Connell said he had no choice but to sue Ammons because the loss of his job would cost him more than $1 million in medical benefits for his permanently disabled and institutionalized daughter.

“I take this step because there is no doubt that the hanging kangaroo court Ammons has created to try me will soon fire me based on her reckless and false charges that I am a racist, a sexist and a threat to the physical safety of the Widener student community,” he said.