The two Widener University School of Law students named in a defamation suit by former professor Lawrence J. Connell are not only having their legal costs picked up by the school, but Widener has also agreed to pay the tab if the students are found to have defamed Mr. Connell and a jury hands up a judgment against them.
The students, Jennifer Perez and Nadege Tandoh, are represented by Wilmington attorney Donald L. Gouge, Jr.
Both Mr. Gouge and the university confirmed that Widener is bankrolling the students' defense.
"The university has both an implicit legal and moral obligation to investigate such charges and defend and indemnify students who bring these types of charges in good faith," said Widener spokesman Dan Hanson in an interview.
"Failing to do so would not only have a chilling effect on any students who may consider filing such complaints in the future, it would be counter to the university's legal responsibility to protect students from retaliation under such circumstances."
Mr. Hanson said Widener is obligated to protect the students under multiple federal statutes including Title VI of the Civil Rights of 1964, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Although the statutes do contain strong language prohibiting retaliation in an educational setting, there is no specific language requiring an institution to either cover attorney fees or indemnify students who feel they have been retaliated against.
Mr. Connell was placed on administrative leave last December after the students complained that he made offensive statements in reference to women and minorities in his spring 2010 criminal law class.
The students claimed that he used a hypothetical scenario that involved the murder of Widener Law Dean Linda J. Ammons, a black woman. In that scenario, delivered during a lecture on criminal intent, Mr. Connell said he "blew Ms. Ammons' head off," according to affidavits submitted by the students who filed the complaint.
In June, Mr. Connell appeared before a panel composed of three Widener administrators. The panel released a 52-page decision exonerating Mr. Connell of all but one of the charges. Mr. Connell was cleared of four charges of racial harassment in the classroom, two specific charges of sexual harassment and one charge of retaliation by seeking to take the depositions of two students who eventually ended up in a civil defamation lawsuit.
In addition, the committee also expressed concerns about how some of the case's procedural aspects were handled. Specifically, the panel said in the report that it "had some unanswered questions about the course of events as it pertains to timing."