He Said, They Said

March 24, 2005

Thomas Klocek showed up at DePaul University one day this month to stage a news conference. He taped his mouth shut and used rope and more tape to bind his arms and torso. His point was that the university had gagged him, denying the long-time adjunct the opportunity to teach because of views on the Middle East that he expressed one day in September.

That's one view of the case -- and a view that is spreading widely online, where Klocek is being embraced by various groups as a victim of political correctness. Because Klocek was accused of intimidating pro-Palestinian students -- and because a major controversy at Columbia University concerns charges that some pro-Palestinian professors intimidate pro-Israel students -- the case has attracted more interest than it would have otherwise. Klocek also isn't afraid of letting people know that although he's taught at DePaul for 15 years, and received strong student evaluations during that period, he has no tenure and doesn't know how he'll treat his kidney disease when he loses his eligibility for health insurance through the university.

DePaul says that the reason Klocek was punished has nothing to do with the fact that he argued with pro-Palestinian students. Rather, it is because he crossed a line in his discussions with the students such that they felt in physical danger.

So what happened on September 15 to set off this debate?

DePaul, like many universities, holds events early in the fall semester when student groups set up tables to explain their activities and recruit new members. Klocek, who teaches composition and other courses in DePaul's adult education division, happened to stop by. And he stopped to chat at the table set up by Students for Justice in Palestine, which was located next door to a group called United Muslims Moving Ahead.

According to Klocek, he looked at some of the materials being given out by the pro-Palestinian group and argued with some of its members about what the materials said. "I tried to remind them of a number of perspectives, the Christian perspectives, on the conflict," he said. Klocek, who is Roman Catholic, said that he considers himself a supporter of Israel, but that his main point that day was to point out the terrorist acts committed by Palestinians.

Klocek acknowledges that "there was a certain amount of raised voices," especially when four students from the Muslim group joined the four students from the Palestinian group in debating him. But he said "no one was pushed or shoved or threatened."

According to Klocek, he eventually decided to leave and made a gesture ("thumbing of my chin") to indicate "I'm out of here." The students reported that the gesture was obscene.

Denise Mattson, a spokeswoman for DePaul, described the dispute in a different way. She said that the students noticed Klocek before he stopped by their table, walking back and forth and "acting in an odd way." Once he arrived at the table, he was 'belligerent" and "menacing," Mattson said, shaking and pointing his finger very close to students' faces. He was so threatening that other students who were present "ran to get help from staff, saying that students were being attacked by a professor."

Mattson said no physical attack took place, and that the closest anything came to it was when Klocek threw some of the materials he picked up back at the students. And she said that Klocek returned to the activities fair even after university officials asked him to leave.

She said that the subject of the argument had nothing to do with the university's concern. "It could have been about anything," she said. "DePaul took action because we had to protect our students."

After the incident, Klocek was placed on paid leave for the fall (the university says it was a mutual decision -- he says he had no choice), given no courses for the winter quarter, and given the option of having one in the spring -- if he apologized to the students he offended and agreed to let a program director periodically visit his classroom to see him in action.

When DePaul offered Klocek its conditions for his return to the classroom, he decided to hire a lawyer, and this month he staged his bound and gagged press conference. To him, the incident is about free speech. "The people who run this school are confusing Christian values with political correctness."

But to DePaul, it's anything but. "He's becoming a cause célèbre for academic freedom, and he isn't," Mattson said.

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