Was Oakton instructor's email a threat or free speech?
A national First Amendment advocacy group is accusing Oakton Community College of trampling over a former faculty member's free speech rights, but the college's president says she felt personally threatened by the contents of the instructor's email.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has come to the defense of former Oakton instructor Chester Kulis, who sent an email to colleagues -- and the college's retiring President Margaret Lee -- on May 1 stating "Have a happy MAY DAY when workers across the world celebrate their struggle for union rights and remember the Haymarket riot in Chicago."
The subject line of the email was "The Antidote to the Peg Lee Gala" -- a reference to a retirement party being held for Lee, who is stepping down after 30 years at the Des Plaines-based community college, the last 20 as its president.
"I very frankly felt that I was being personally threatened. I know well the Haymarket riot," Lee said of the 1886 riot that left 11 dead. "I don't know what was in Chester Kulis' head, but if he did something that harmed not just me, but the college, I would feel personally responsible."
That's when she contacted the college's lawyers, who responded by sending Kulis a "cease and desist" letter, accusing him of making a threat against Lee.
"Your reference to 'remember the Haymarket riot' was clearly threatening the president that you could resort to violence against the president and college campus," college attorney Philip Gerner wrote in the May 7 letter to Kulis. "Threats of violence are not First Amendment protected free speech."
Kulis, a Mount Prospect resident who taught part-time at Oakton from 1989 until last year, has been a critic of Lee since she decided not to rehire some 80 part-time employees, including 50 adjunct instructors. The move came in response to a 2013 state law that imposes penalties on public colleges that employ part-time instructors who have retired from full-time teaching jobs at other institutions.
Oakton was fined $166,000 last year after officials said three instructors exceeded teaching limits imposed by the law, aimed at clamping down on "double dipping."
Kulis, who taught law enforcement and sociology, was one of the instructors let go, and as a result filed a grievance and unfair labor practice complaint against Oakton.
He said he sent the email to speak out about union rights.
"Clearly, I'm not an anarchist. I'm not carrying bombs. I'm carrying letters," Kulis said.
"It's a chilling of the First Amendment," he said of the letter from Oakton's attorney. "It's totally absurd."
After learning of Kulis' email and the college lawyer's response, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter of its own to Oakton.
"In declaring Kulis's email a threat of violence and ordering him to cease and desist from sending similar messages, OCC and its attorney have ignored clear legal precedent, violated Kulis's rights, and deeply chilled expression on campus," wrote Ari Z. Cohn and Peter Bonilla, two officials from the organization. "OCC must immediately retract the cease and desist letter and respect the First Amendment rights of faculty members who criticize the college's administration or its policies."
Lee invited anyone to come to Oakton to see "we're not quashing free speech." But Kulis' email, she said, was "like yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater."
"I legitimately felt threatened," Lee said. "I defend the right to free speech but I don't defend the right to threaten me or the college."
Kulis says it's the second time Oakton administrators have clamped down on a faculty member for sending an email about May Day. When another adjunct sent a mass email to faculty in 2014 about the history of the day, the instructor was barred from sending out mass emails, Kulis said.
"Oakton allows many forms of social and political commentary on issues like diversity, undocumented immigrants and feminism, but not anything regarding our rich union history," he said.
Kulis, like the other 80 Oakton employees who were already earning pensions from other public sector jobs, was offered the chance to remain at Oakton if he suspended his pension temporarily, or agreed to reduce the number of classes he taught so Oakton wouldn't be hit with a state-imposed penalty.
He agreed to neither option, and instead chose to file a grievance. An arbitrator later ruled in the college's favor. His unfair labor practice complaint against the school is pending.