By Lee V. Gaines at Chicago Tribune
Lawyers for Oakton Community College say a one-sentence email from a former adjunct lecturer at the school commemorating May Day and the Haymarket riot in Chicago constituted a threat of violence against the institution and outgoing president Margaret B. Lee.
On May 1, Chester Kulis, who has served as an adjunct instructor of both sociology and law enforcement studies at the college since 1989, copied Lee on an email titled “MAY DAY — The Antidote to the Peg Lee Gala.”
The email read: “Have a happy MAY DAY when workers across the world celebrate their struggle for union rights and remember the Haymarket riot in Chicago.”
On the day he sent the email, Kulis said the college was hosting a reception for Lee, who is retiring at the end of June after 30 years at the institution.
Kulis, 69, an active member of the Adjunct Faculty Association, a union at the college, said he initially planned to only send the email to fellow adjunct instructors. An outspoken critic of the college’s treatment of its adjunct faculty members, Kulis also previously filed a grievance against the Des Plaines-based school after he was not offered re-employment after last year’s spring semester.
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Kulis said a new state law will keep many retirees who receive state pensions from adjunct teaching part time at state colleges and universities.
“I kind of said hold it, Peg Lee is having such a wonderful day, and we are getting fired,” Kulis said, addingthat’s when he decided to add her name to the list of recipients.
Six days after Kulis sent his May Day email, he received a cease and desist letter written by one of the college’s attorneys, Philip H. Gerner III.
The Haymarket riot, a labor protest that turned violent on May 4, 1886, near Chicago’s Haymarket Square, resulted in the deaths of 11 people and injured more than 70, Gerner wrote in the letter.
“Your reference to ‘remember the Haymarket riot’ was clearly threatening the president that you could resort to violence against the president and the college campus. Threats of violence are not First Amendment protected free speech,” he wrote.
But Kulis said he never intended to threaten anyone with violence when he sent his May Day email.
“I would put it this way,” he said. “No one who read this email, with the exception of Peg Lee and her attorneys, thought there was any violent intent.”
After learning about Kulis’ story, representatives of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came to his defense in a letter addressed to Lee. FIRE, according to its website, aims to defend individual rights, including free speech, at colleges and universities across the U.S.
The letter asked that the college rescind the cease and desist letter and reassure Kulis and other faculty members that their First Amendment rights would be respected on campus even if they chose to criticize the institution, its administration and practices.
“It’s pretty clear that merely referencing a historical event is not a true threat,” said Ari Cohn, an attorney for FIRE who signed the letter to Lee.
Cohn said Kulis did not “say something like I’m going to blow up an administration building or I’m going to attack the president,” which would have constituted a true threat.
Kulis only made a rhetorical point about labor conditions at the college “and his perception of the college president as being a part of those unfair practices,” Cohn said.
In a response to FIRE’s letter, another attorney for the college, Catherine Locallo, disagreed with the organization’s assessment of the situation.
“Considering that the anniversary of the Haymarket riot was just three days after Kulis sent the email, it was also reasonable for Dr. Lee to fear that a violent act against her by Kulis was imminent and could even occur on campus and impact hundreds of students and staff,” Locallo wrote.
After he received the cease and desist letter from Oakton’s attorneys in May, Kulis filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board .
Locallo, when contacted by the Tribune, declined to offer any further comment on the issue because of the pending investigation by the labor board.
Kulis said he doesn’t wish any ill will toward Lee or the college, but their reaction to his email “was very much an attempt to stifle free expression.”
The bigger problem, he said, is the way the college and other schools treat their adjunct instructors, and that will remain an issue long after both he and Lee have retired.