CHICAGO, June 8, 2015—Oakton Community College (OCC) is insisting that a one-sentence “May Day” email referencing the Haymarket Riot sent by a faculty member to several colleagues constituted a “true threat” to the college president.
Lawyers for the Chicago-area college argue that the email, which noted that May Day (May 1) is a traditional time for workers to remember the riot, threatened violence. Last month, OCC demanded that the now former faculty member “cease and desist” from similar communications in the future or face potential legal action.
May Day is celebrated every year on May 1 by the international labor movement to commemorate the fight for workers’ rights. The celebration is historically associated with the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago.
“Merely noting to one’s colleagues that May Day is a time when workers ‘remember’ the Haymarket Riot does not constitute a ‘true threat,’” said Ari Cohn, a Senior Program Officer and lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “The United States Department of the Interior has designated the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument a National Historic Landmark. If remembering the Haymarket Riot is a ‘true threat,’ the monument itself would be illegal.”
On May 1, Chester Kulis sent an email to OCC colleagues that read, “Have a happy MAY DAY when workers across the world celebrate their struggle for union rights and remember the Haymarket riot in Chicago.” The email, titled “May Day - The Antidote to the Peg Lee Gala,” was written in response to a reception hosted by OCC in celebration of the retirement of college president Margaret B. Lee.
Kulis, who has taught at OCC since 1989, was listed on the college’s website as a lecturer at the time he sent his email. Kulis sought to raise awareness of the perceived mistreatment of adjunct faculty members through his role with the Adjunct Faculty Association.
In response to Kulis’s email, an attorney representing OCC wrote a cease-and-desist letter to Kulis on May 7, arguing that Kulis’s reference to the Haymarket Riot was a threat of violence because the famous workers’ rally in Chicago “resulted in 11 deaths and more than 70 people injured.” The attorney, Philip H. Gerner III, went on to say that similar future communications could result in legal action.
FIRE wrote to the college on May 22, asking the school to retract its cease-and-desist letter and to respect the right of faculty members to send emails like Kulis’s. FIRE pointed out that far from being a “true threat,” the email was constitutionally protected speech. Another lawyer representing the college responded on June 1, doubling down on the claim that Kulis’s email “constituted a ‘true threat’” and arguing that since President Lee was one of the recipients of the email, “she interpreted the communication as a threat against her personally.”
“Colleges and universities are bending over backwards to label benign, constitutionally protected speech as ‘violent’ or ‘threatening,’” said Cohn. “While sometimes administrators act out of an overabundance of caution, other times it’s clear they are playing on our basest fears to justify censoring speech with which they simply disagree. In either case, the censorship cannot stand at a public college bound by the First Amendment, nor in any environment that claims to be committed to the marketplace of ideas.”
FIRE has repeatedly come to the defense of students and faculty members like Kulis who are punished or threatened with punishment because their expressive activity is falsely labeled violent or threatening. In a remarkably similar case last year, Colorado State University–Pueblo deactivated Professor Tim McGettigan’s email account, citing safety concerns, in response to an email that criticized the administration and evoked the Ludlow Massacre, a 1914 attack on striking miners and their families that resulted in numerous deaths.
Also in 2014, FIRE helped reverse the punishment of an art professor at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College who was placed on leave and forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation for posting a picture of his daughter wearing a Game of Thrones T-shirt that the school called “threatening.” And in 2011, police and administrators at University of Wisconsin, Stout made national headlines after removing a Firefly poster from a professor’s office door because it “refer[red] to killing” and “can be interpreted as a threat by others.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Joianne Smith, Vice President for Student Affairs, Oakton Community College: 847-635-1739, email@example.com