Victory: Court Orders Reinstatement of Scott McConnell

On January 18, 2006, a New York Appellate Division court ordered Le Moyne College to reinstate education student Scott McConnell “forthwith.” McConnell was summarily expelled a year ago because of a course paper he wrote concerning classroom management. Among other things, McConnell’s paper questioned the value of multicultural education and suggested that corporal punishment might have a role in maintaining classroom discipline.

Expelled for paper

In 2005, CIR filed suit against Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, for removing a graduate student in education solely because of the point of view he expressed in a paper.  The school purported to exercise its educational judgment and justified the student’s removal based on the fact that La Moyne is deputized by New York State to certify teachers.

LE MOYNE COLLEGE

A few days before the beginning of the 2005 Spring semester, Scott McConnell, a graduate student at Le Moyne College,  had received a letter summarily expelling him because of a “mismatch” between his “personal beliefs regarding teaching and learning and the Le Moyne College program goals.” It didn’t take Scott long to learn what had happened.

As part of a course assignment the previous semester, Scott had been asked to formulate a classroom management plan. Like many of his assignments, it was supposed to reflect his personal views, so Scott wrote about his experience as a substitute teacher and an Army veteran.

SCOTT MCCONNELL

Scott’s paper emphasized the importance of meeting student’s needs, discipline, and building respect and a community. He said that running a classroom depends on the teacher asserting his or her authority.

No place in the classroom

Scott also wrote that multicultural education has no “philosophical place or standing in an American classroom.” And he mentioned that “corporal punishment has a place in the classroom and should be implemented when needed.” Though the First Amendment protects even unreasonable beliefs, McConnell’s claims about multiculturalism and the appropriate use of corporal punishment are neither radical nor unreasonable. Both are the subject of lively debate in professional circles and are supported by scientific and medical literature as well as (in the case of corporal punishment) the public policy declared by twenty-one state legislatures.

Though Le Moyne later would claim that McConnell was proposing to violate the law and/or state mandated teaching protocols, at no point did he say or even suggest (in writing or in any conversation) that he would violate any law or fail to follow any directive imposed on him by his superiors in the education system. As a graduate student in education, McConnell reasonably thought he was free to take positions on controversial topics within the profession without having his integrity as a teacher attacked.

  • Read McConnell’s paper (pdf 78K)
  • Read the letter dismissing McConnell (pdf 277k)

“Interesting Ideas”

His teacher, Mark Trabucco, gave Scott an “A-” for the assignment.  After noting that Scott’s paper had some “interesting ideas,” he wrote that he would pass it on to Dr. Leogrande, the Director of the Graduate Education Program and Chair of the Education Department. It was Leogrande who decided that Scott’s views were incompatible with the Le Moyne program goals and dismissed him with a short letter.

“BECAUSE I DIDN’T TALK AND THINK THE SAME WAY THAT LE MOYNE DID…I RECEIVED THE ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT”–SCOTT MCCONNELL, NEW YORK TIMES

Scott was outraged. An Army veteran and substitute teacher, he had been conditionally accepted in March, 2004 to the Master of Science for Teachers program. To remain in the program, Scott had to earn a grade of “B” or higher in his first four courses and complete any course deficiencies from his undergraduate work. Scott received three “A-‘s”, one “A”, and one “B+” in his first 5 courses over the Summer and Fall semesters. He was also rated as “excellent” by his host teacher at Franklin Elementary School. She wrote that Scott was “a joy to have within the classroom.” Scott had fulfilled the requirements for full acceptance to Le Moyne College.

Scott publicizes his case

After receiving the letter, Scott called the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He hoped FIRE could persuade Le Moyne to reinstate him. In a four page letter to Le Moyne President Reverend Charles Beirne, FIRE noted the school’s written commitment to academic freedom and diversity. Indeed, the Le Moyne student handbook states that “Le Moyne shares the ideals of academic freedom found in American institutions of higher education,” and its mission statement affirms the college as a “diverse learning community.”

FIRE asked that Scott be reinstated and his right to free speech be affirmed, and that neither he nor any other student be censored for expressing their beliefs in the future. Le Moyne sent back a one paragraph letter stating the the “College does not believe it is appropriate to enter a public debate with your organization concerning the College’s admissions decision regarding any particular student.” Soon Scott’s story was everywhere, It was being told in print including the New York Timestelevision, and radio. The school refused to reconsider and denied Scott’s appeal to the Provost.

CIR defends McConnell’s First Amendment rights

“WE HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY AS AN ACCREDITING BODY FOR TEACHERS, TO BE CONFIDENT THAT THESE INDIVIDUALS WHEN THEY GO OUT AND TEACH, ARE GOING TO OBEY THE LAWS OF NEW YORK STATE…”–LE MOYNE PROVOST JOHN SMARELLI SPEAKING ON NPR’S “ALL THINGS CONSIDERED”

Scott decided to file a lawsuit challenging his dismissal on the grounds that Le Moyne violated his First Amendment rights to free speech under the U.S. and New York constitutions and violated of state laws that prohibit action by educational institutions that are “arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion.” After being turned down by the ACLU, he contacted CIR and asked for our help.

CIR filed suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York County of Onondaga on behalf of Scott. The complaint charges Dr. Leogrande, Dr. Smarelli (Provost), and Professor Trabucco in their official and personal capacities with violating McConnell’s constitutionally protected free speech rights and his rights to due process under New York State law. CIR asked that McConnell be reinstated at Le Moyne and that the college be enjoined from further suppression of speech based solely on the point of view.

Illiberalism

Political liberalism once championed the First Amendment; now it views free speech as a potential threat to efforts to promote a supportive, diverse, sensitive, and non-hostile environment. Efforts to suppress campus speech have taken a new and alarming turn. Increasingly, schools now advance the free speech right of an institution to promote a single, favored perspective. On the basis of this right, schools now remove students (and even faculty members) who appear to deviate from what the schools characterize as a “mainstream” view. In this way, schools are able to cloak the suppression of speech behind the purported right of the institution to express a distinctive point of view.

It is important to counter the view that the First Amendment protects an expressive right to enforce a single, acceptable point of view. Fortunately, there is a long line of cases that holds that the First Amendment protects the academic freedom of students not administrators. Among those precedents is CIR’s 1995 victory in Rosenberger v . Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.  

CIR has a strong record defending the First Amendment rights of students and professors on campus. CIR’s free speech victories in the federal courts have made it harder for school officials to censure students and professors merely because someone finds their viewpoint offensive.

Case Status: Victory. New York appellate court ordered immediate reinstatement.

Comments are closed.