Popular UH law instructor banned from campus amid racial bias case against school

Instructor Ken Lawson filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on Sept. 6
Published: Sep. 11, 2023 at 4:51 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 11, 2023 at 6:27 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A popular instructor at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law is asking a federal judge to intervene in a civil battle so he can return to in-person teaching. He’s accusing university officials of violating his right to free speech.

Instructor Ken Lawson filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on Sept. 6

The filing came nearly three weeks after he filed a civil lawsuit against UH Provost Michael Bruno, law school Dean Camille Nelson, and other faculty members for alleged civil rights violations.

Ken Lawson, UH law school instructor
Ken Lawson, UH law school instructor(Hawaii News Now (custom credit))

In the court filing, Lawson says he’s that being retaliated against after he filed a discrimination complaint last year over pay inequity.

He also touches on an incident in February after which he was told to teach his classes remotely.

The directive came after the school’s diversity committee organized an event for Black History Month but — Lawson said — no African American teachers or students were part of the planning panel. The Black Law Students Association called for a boycott of the event for being excluded from the planning. And during a subsequent faculty meeting, Lawson said he expressed his frustration.

Other employees described Lawson’s statement as “disrespectful” and wrote in an email to the school dean that Lawson used “abusive language and behavior.”

An investigation was launched and he was banished from campus — forced to teach online only.

He’s remained on online-only teaching for the last seven months.

Lawson is a well-known law teacher at the law school and co-director of the Hawaii Innocence project, which has gotten national attention for work to help those wrongfully convicted of crimes.

Lawson said he needs access to campus because the office has confidential legal files that cannot be removed. According to the court records, Lawson asked to enter the law school facility after hours and with security escorts so he could work with files, but that request was denied.

“I think it’s just beyond unfortunate,” said Randall Roth, a retired UH law professor.

Roth said Lawson has a large number of students taking courses with subjects that are included on the bar exam. Roth was the first to welcome Lawson to the school in 2009, to speak to students about his well-known life as a drug addict, which sent him to federal prison.

“He was telling stories about different ways he had betrayed his family, his friends, his clients,” Roth said, adding that the students gave Lawson a standing ovation.

“Gives you some idea as to just how powerful his comments were.”

Lawson declined to comment on the civil case.

In a statement, a UH spokesperson said Lawson’s lawsuit and motion for a retraining order “are premised on misstatements and inaccuracies, and the University is preparing to respond to both.”

The statement said Lawson’s online only classes are due to the pending internal investigation — “to preserve the integrity of the investigation.”

In Lawson’s request for a TRO, he said the school administration should not be investigating because it’s the same administration from his pay inequity complaint last year.

He wants a group not connected to UH to run the case.

No date has been set for the motion for a restraining order to be heard in federal court.