Appeals court slams summary expulsion over course paper
A New York Appellate Division court today 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.
The Appellate Division panel held that it was unlawful to expel McConnell -- a fully matriculated student -- without affording him procedural safeguards accorded any other student. McConnell intends to resume his studies at Le Moyne tomorrow.
The decision means schools may not arbitrarily limit academic freedom for certain students based solely on their outlook or political views. The decision deals a blow to professional education schools that, increasingly, seek to evaluate students according to what is termed "dispositions theory" -- namely, the commitment of a student to some favored conception of social justice.
In the paper that got him expelled, McConnell wrote that classroom management is "based upon strong discipline and hard work." He added that students should be taught "personal responsibility and respect for authority." In passing, the paper mentioned that "corporal punishment" might play a role in classroom management and that "multiculturalism" had no legitimate role in the classroom.
McConnell received an "A-minus" for the paper. His teacher passed the paper on to the Chair of the Graduate Education program, Cathy Leogrande. Without warning, Leogrande sent a note to McConnell on January 13, 2005, dismissing him from the program. Leogrande wrote that she had "grave concerns" about a "mismatch" between McConnell's "personal beliefs" and "the Le Moyne College program goals."
Though Le Moyne purports to protect the expression of 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-two state legislatures.
The Appellate Division order reverses a September judgment by New York Supreme Court Judge Edward Carni, who held that McConnell’s expulsion was an "admissions decision...uniquely within the professional judgment of those involved...in the academic oversight of this institution.” As CIR co-counsel Daniel B. O'Sullivan argued on appeal though, treating the expulsion of a matriculated student as an "admissions decision" would mean any student could be summarily expelled up to the point he walked across the stage to receive his diploma.
Like most modern schools, Le Moyne College adheres to norms of academic freedom. According to the Le Moyne handbook, a student may not be disciplined or expelled simply for expressing unorthodox views. The school affords numerous procedural safeguards before a student may be expelled. Significantly, none of these were followed in McConnell's case. As a result of his arbitrary expulsion, McConnell was forced to attend a non-Master's degree program at Buffalo State College, more than a three hour drive from his home.
CIR President Terry Pell commented, "Institutions that claim to believe in academic freedom cannot selectively protect only the speech they happen to favor. We are pleased that the New York courts agree that Le Moyne cannot have it both ways. Scott McConnell is entitled to the same right of free expression that Le Moyne offers any other student."
Pell added, "when Scott McConnell walks through the front gate of Le Moyne College tomorrow, he will know his right to be treated fairly according to Le Moyne stated rules is backed by the courts and the laws of the State of New York."
CIR is a non-profit, public interest law firm specializing in civil rights and free speech law. For more information, contact Joy Jones at 202-833-8400 x 106 or visit CIR's web site at http://www.cir-usa.org.
Last revised: January 19, 2006