Kenneth Lawson criticized a Black history program for including no Black panelists.

A prominent instructor at the University of Hawaii’s law school has sued the school, alleging the dean, unnamed faculty and a university provost retaliated against him by banning him from the law school campus after he criticized and organized a boycott against a Black History Month event that did not include any Black person as a panelist, facilitator or organizer.

Kenneth Lawson’s complaint, filed Monday in federal court in Honolulu, names as defendants the University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law; law school Dean Camille Nelson; Michael Bruno, provost of the University of Hawaii Manoa, and other unnamed faculty members.

Ken Lawson, who serves as co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project criminal law clinic at UH’s law school, wrote Dean Camille Nelson in February to say, “You were highly dismissive of the pain that was caused by this racially insensitive act.” Lawson says he was later the subject of an investigation and banned from campus. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

While he has been banned from campus, Lawson said the school still hasn’t addressed the issue he raised.

“One could only imagine the uproar it would create if (Richardson law school) colleagues tried to stage a program on Native Hawaiian activism without including a Native Hawaiian on the panel, or a program on antisemitism without including a single Jewish person, or on AJA in Hawaii without including any AJAs,” the complaint says. “It could only be imagined for a very simple reason: It has never happened, nor will it ever happen.”

University of Hawaii spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the university is still reviewing Lawson’s 107-page complaint.

“We can’t comment on it at this time,” he said.

Nelson did not return a call for comment.

Lawson, who frequently comments on legal affairs in the Hawaii media, declined to comment on his own lawsuit. But the complaint itself provides a detailed narrative of the events that he alleges led him to be banned from the same campus where, in 2017 he received the Board of Regents’ Excellence in Teaching Award.

‘Unconscious Racial Bias’

According to Lawson’s suit, a February 2023 event was hosted by the law school’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Billed as a Black History Month event, the DEI committee’s gathering included a lunchtime discussion of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” but the event involved no Black people as organizers or speakers, the complaint asserts. 

According to the complaint, Lawson raised concerns about the event at a Feb. 17 faculty meeting, where he “explained that failing to include anyone of Black ancestry in the event was an example of unconscious racial bias.”

The complaint says Nelson repeatedly interrupted Lawson as he tried to explain why the DEI committee’s exclusion of a Black panelist or organizer from the Black History event was an example of what Lawson said some scholars call “nice racism.”

At one point, according to the complaint, Nelson — who is Black, born in Jamaica and educated in Canada – said, “as a Black woman, I can understand (discrimination and racism).”

According to the suit, Lawson responded that Nelson’s life experience did not give her personal understanding of aspects of the U.S. Black civil rights movement, as well things like Jim Crow segregation or forced desegregation in which Black students were bussed to hostile, majority-white schools.

UH Manoa William Richardson School of Law.
The William S. Richardson School of Law has banned faculty specialist Kenneth Lawson from campus pending an investigation. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

As Lawson describes it, the faculty meeting went on for several hours after that and there were no complaints that Lawson had disrupted the meeting. 

Lawson later emailed Nelson expressing “pain and hurt” about what he said was her lack of attention to his concerns about the Black History Month event.

“Camille, you were highly dismissive of the pain that was caused by this racially insensitive act,” says the email, which is attached to the complaint as an exhibit. “You kept saying it was a mistake. Like shit happens, and this type of racism is no big deal when directed at Black Americans who were born and raised in this racist country.”

After getting no response from Nelson, Lawson and the school’s Black Law Student Association called for a boycott of the event on a school listserv. Event organizers later sent out a letter saying the event was meant to be a “book club” meeting, so there was nothing wrong with not having a Black speaker or organizer, the complaint says. The suit calls that letter “gaslighting.”

Eventually, the suit says, Lawson was informed that the university had initiated an investigation into whether Lawson’s actions created a hostile work environment at the law school. As a result, Lawson has been banned from the law school since February, forced to teach classes online and oversee the Hawaii Innocence Project law clinic remotely. 

The suit says the law school’s actions were retaliation for speaking out about “matters of public concern” and constitute a violation of his First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. The complaint asks the court to order the law school to allow Lawson to return to campus and to use the university listserv to make announcements.

Lawson Had Pushed For Higher Pay

The investigation into whether Lawson has created a hostile environment at Richardson comes as Lawson has been fighting for equal pay with other faculty who teach far less than Lawson, but instead publish books and law review articles.

Although Lawson’s official title is “Faculty Specialist,” he teaches far more classes than many people who hold the title “professor.” Lawson’s status is what the law school calls “S” faculty, which means he earns much less than colleagues who are classified as “J” faculty. 

Lawson managed to get a basic pay raise through the university’s grievance process, the suit says. But he says Nelson and Bruno rejected his application for a larger, merit-based raise, even though faculty voted to support it. Lawson teaches more than any J faculty, and far more than some, according to charts attached to the complaint.

For example, one chart shows that Lawson in 2020 taught classes comprising 34 credit hours to 295 students. His salary of $113,222 made him one of Richardson’s lowest-paid professors. By contrast, a J-faculty colleague, Tae-Ung Baik — an international human rights specialist with advanced law degrees and duties directing the Korean studies program and a doctor of judicial sciences program — earned $185,700 for teaching 22 students. 

“This chart clearly shows that J-Faculty are paid enormous salaries for embarrassingly limited instructional duties, and that very few J-Faculty at W.S.R.S.L. meet the minimal teaching requirements,” the complaint alleges. “In comparison, Professor Lawson, despite having been improperly classified as S-Faculty, has regularly taught 30 to 40 credit hours annually while his J-Faculty colleagues have been permitted to teach 6 to 12 credit hours annually.”

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