Did profanity bring Lawrence Connell down?

by Jack Crittenden: The odd story of Lawrence Connell seems to pit academic freedom against discrimination and harassment. The tenured professor at Widener is accused of making racist and sexist remarks — most notably through a hypothetical in his criminal law class.

In that hypo, Connell described how he was upset with Linda Ammons, Widener’s dean, who is black. He went to shoot her, but instead shot an “ingeniously painted pumpkin” that looked like the dean. Connell then used the hypo to discuss attempted crimes.

Other professors have come to the defense of using actual people in criminal hypos – even when the hypos are morbid. The practice is apparently common and useful in the classroom.

What is not so common is some of the other language that Connell has allegedly used. He called black people “black folks,” and a female police officer a “honey.” He allegedly said that “a person who is shooting at black folks [is] less dangerous than a person who is shooting randomly.”

While ill advised and objectionable, the comments are a far cry from the kind of discriminatory phrases that personify most successful harassment cases. And they hardly seem strong enough to ban Connell from campus, as Ammons did in December.

The evidence that has been made public seems weak at best. Most assuredly, there is more here than meets the eye. Like most people, I don’t feel it is wise to comment on a case when all of the facts are not yet in. But there is one aspect to the case that I think is ripe for discussion – the use of profanity in the classroom.

Connell is also accused of using the phrase “die bitch,” and in the hypo saying he decided to “shoot Dean Ammons and then blew her f---ing head off.” Ammon’s statement of dismissal for cause states that Connell used “excessive use of profanity.”

Profanity is more widely used than in past years, and for some it is a regular part of speech. But it is still not acceptable for a judge or attorney to use it in the courtroom as part of their regular speech. It makes me wonder why it would be acceptable for a law professor who is preparing students for this noble profession.

Also, whether profanity is common or not, it will always impact listeners at an emotional level — usually a negative one. Profanity has the ability to take a statement of fact and turn it into an emotionally charged statement — even one where students want to file complaints.

Referring to African Americans as “black folks” gets a lot worse when it is combined in a sentence with the F word.

Connell has stated that class material can be depressing, especially in criminal law, and he uses hypos of known people to lighten the atmosphere. Perhaps his profanity was also an effort to lighten the mood, or perhaps it was to add a sense of realism to the crimes under discussion.

In any event, I am guessing that the only thing it actually accomplished was offending his students, and pouring gasoline on top of a growing fire.

Perhaps the charges against Connell are “preposterous,” as he claims. Perhaps academic freedom should be upheld and that he should keep his tenured position. But in any event, this should be a warning to all professors that “profanity is the weapon of the witless,” and not the tool of the educator.