Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Case of the Paranoid President

To say that Curmie is way behind on his writing is like saying Donald Trump has a high opinion of himself. I keep a log of links to news stories that I might like to turn into blog pieces someday: my current backlog is 92 stories, just on education, from calendar year 2015 (there are almost exactly the same number of stories about topics other than education). Part of the problem is that it’s been a particularly busy summer—work-related trips to London, Kent (Ohio), and Montreal totaled well over a month away from home, plus writing a conference paper that turned out to be more work than initially suspected, preparing for a larger-than-normal production this fall… well, you get the idea. But part of the problem is simply that with so many things to write about, Curmie dithers about what topic to choose, then watches Netflix instead of writing about anything.

Today, therefore, represents an attempt, however feeble, to break out of that rut. With so many potential Curmie contenders to choose from, it’s time to just pick one—not necessarily the most egregious, but the one that interests me most today—and go with it. So today I write about a story from May (it found its way into the popular press in June).

Margaret B. Lee: A Curmie contender, and a strong one.
It seems that Oakton Community College President Margaret B. (Peg) Lee was retiring after three decades of service to the Des Plaines, IL, institution, and the college held a reception in her honor. So far, so good, right? Well, a couple of days after the April 25 “gala,” a former adjunct named Chester Kulis copied Lee on an e-mail sent to adjunct instructors. Titled “MAY DAY—The Antidote to the Peg Lee Gala,” the offending missive consisted of a single sentence: “Have a happy MAY DAY when workers across the world celebrate their struggle for union rights and remember the Haymarket riot in Chicago.” [Curmie’s note: overview of the events of the Haymarket riot here.]

Chester Kulis: Not advocating violence.
Kulis, a long-time member of faculty unions, was miffed that Lee had not re-appointed him (and some 50 other adjuncts) after the school was hit with a $150,000 fine in the wake of a recently-adopted state law which imposes significant financial penalties on any institution which hires officially retired state employees who are paid (by that institution and any others, apparently) a total of more than 40% of their salary in their highest-paid year of employment by the state.  (A revision of the statute, which would exempt retirees receiving less than a $10,000 annual pension, has been proposed, but as far as I can tell not passed into law.)

OCC spokeswoman Janet Spector Bishop was certainly correct in arguing “We’re a public entity. We can’t be spending taxpayer dollars on financial penalties we can avoid.” Her ensuing sentence, however, is no more than equivocation: “It’s not the choice we wanted to make, but we do need to comply with the law.” No one suggested that non-compliance was an option, but there are plenty of ways of ensuring legalities without summarily firing a considerable number of presumably valuable adjunct faculty. Such solutions would require both thought and work, however, and Lee’s administration seemed uninterested in either.

So let us stipulate a few things. 1). The law was well-intentioned but had some unanticipated and negative side effects. 2). The Oakton administration’s solution was pragmatic but lazy and pedagogically silly. 3). Adjunct faculty are probably the most exploited and under-appreciated group of professionals in the country. 4). Kulis is a whiner, and copying the e-mail to Lee was a little boorish.

What it was not, however, was threatening. Nonetheless, he received an indignant case-and-desist letter from one Philip H. Gerner III, one of the college’s attorneys. He wrote: “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.”

Two points: First, Lee doesn’t get off the hook. Yes, it’s the lawyers who look like buffoons, taking an OBVIOUSLY non-threatening comment which was merely copied to Lee as “clearly threatening.” BULLSHIT. But it was Lee’s own paranoid delusions that spurred the response, or the lawyers would never have heard of the e-mail to begin with.

Second, Kulis’s e-mail, read as if grammar matters (and it sure as hell does to Curmie), does not call on the recipients to “remember the Haymarket Riot” à la the Alamo or the Maine, but rather points out that May Day is traditionally associated not merely with a celebration of the labor movement, but also with a commemoration of the Haymarket riots of May 4, 1886. Of course, if you don’t believe in the Oxford comma, you might read those last six words as hortatory rather than a second predicate clause with the same subject: “workers celebrate… and remember.” But, even if that’s how you read it, so what?

It takes a particularly feverish mind to extrapolate a threat out of that phrase. Kulis is absolutely right to declare that “I would put it this way. No one who read this email, with the exception of Peg Lee and her attorneys, thought there was any violent intent.” Curmie would phrase it differently: “no sane person could read violent intent into this e-mail.”

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization that’s a little too libertarian even for Curmie’s taste but is unquestionably a net positive force, weighed in on May 22:
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. 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….

Kulis’s brief email is entirely protected by the First Amendment, and the charge that it was “clearly threatening” to anyone in the OCC community is without merit and wholly detached from our legal system’s understanding of what constitutes a true threat. OCC must immediately rescind its cease and desist letter and threats of further action against Kulis—its only acceptable option as a public institution bound by the First Amendment….

FIRE asks that OCC immediately reassure Kulis that his First Amendment rights are respected on campus, rescind its cease and desist letter against him, and make clear to OCC faculty that they will not face backlash from OCC’s administration if they criticize the college, its administration, or its practices, as is their fundamental right.
This prompted a different idiot lawyer from Robbins Schwartz, this time Catherine R. Locallo, to respond rather huffily that of course President Lee’s irrational delusions were completely appropriate. The letter even bases a good deal of its rationale on the idea that Lee thought the letter was addressed to her alone, since it was sent to an “undisclosed recipient” list, cc’d to Lee. (Because if I’m sending you a private e-mail, Gentle Reader, I make sure there’s a blank list of undisclosed recipients and you’re only copied on the message intended for you alone.) Wow.

FIRE naturally jumped all over this inanity. Ari Cohn responded,
Colleges and universities are bending over backwards to label benign, constitutionally protected speech as ‘violent’ or ‘threatening.’ 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.
Amen to that.

This one is a slam-dunk. Lee’s administration is loath to spend public money on… you know… frivolous stuff like the best available faculty, but I’m willing to bet that high-priced Chicago law firm ran up some billable hours strutting around proclaiming that an utterly unsupportable claim was actually valid. Moreover, the cease-and-desist letter didn’t arrive until after the anniversary of the Haymarket riot, by which time Kulis’s alleged violence would, logically, have already taken place. Of course, anything approaching rationality is apparently in rather short supply both in the OCC administration building and at the headquarters of Robbins and Schwartz, whose denizens would be walking lawyer jokes, except that they aren’t funny.

The good news is that Lee will no longer be in charge of Oakton Community College. If she was ever fit for the job, she certainly isn’t now. It would be especially sad if Lee had been an outstanding leader for 30 years, only to have her legacy reduced to this sorry incident.  But that’s what happens when your lawyers are interested in their bottom line rather than your reputation (or theirs).

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