Chicago-style politics is infamous for kickbacks, dead people voting, and thuggery. Alas, it is not just a relic of the past. In fact, witness recent stories of Chicago city workers being hired or promoted based on how well they got voters to the polls and not how well they did their official jobs, children getting admitted to prestigious city schools based on political connections, and the granting of city contracts.
Unfortunately, I know first hand more than I would like about Chicago politics. A decade ago, I was working at the University of Chicago Law School as an Olin Fellow, doing research and some teaching, when I happened to cross paths with Mayor Richard Daley. As he is now about to retire from office, it is time for the facts to come out.
As the author of the book "More Guns, Less Crime" and someone living and working on Daley's home turf in Chicago, I was not one of his favorite people.
Daley has long been one of the nation's strongest gun control proponents, and his behavior has sometimes bordered on the irrational.
This past spring he attacked a reporter who asked: "since guns are readily available in Chicago even with a ban in place, do you really think it’s been effective?" Daley shouted in front of stunned reporters: “Oh, it's been very effective. If I put this up your butt, you’ll find out how effective it is.”
The University of Chicago is one of the nation's top private universities, and, despite its name, it does not have any formal links with the city of Chicago or any other government entity. Yet, one day, I was suddenly faced with immediate removal from my position at the university. What had happened?
On December 15, 1998, I learned from Dan Fischel, the law school's Dean, that Mayor Daley had called up the president of the University of Chicago, Hugo Sonnenschein. Mayor Daley reportedly had told Sonnenschein that he had great plans for the relationship between the city and the school but that my continued presence at the university was going to do “irreparable harm” to that relationship.
I was then faced with two different termination options: immediately resign from the university or stay until July and promise not to talk to the press any more while I was there.
What had I done? On December 10, 1998, Daley had organized a conference with four other mayors to discuss suing the gun makers. Because of my book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” which argued that Daley’s gun laws did more harm than good, reporters from the local CBS and Fox stations who were already at the conference asked me to meet them to talk about the lawsuits.
I had originally planned to arrive after the mayors had made their presentations, but when I arrived, the mayors were behind schedule. I met then CBS reporter Mike Flannery outside the auditorium where the mayors' presentation was about to take place, and he suggested that I attend the meeting so that I could better answer any questions that he might have. Mayor Daley went first and then other mayors made statements.
When the audience started yelling questions, I raised my hand in an attempt to get called on. At that point a woman walked over to me and asked me if I was John Lott from the University of Chicago. I said that I was, and she informed me that I was not allowed to ask any questions -- no additional explanation was offered.
This appeared awfully strange, and it bothered me that someone would be singled out in the entire crowd. So after about 10 minutes, I decided to raise my hand again to ask a question. The same woman reappeared, this time signaling to two plainclothes men to come up behind me where I was seated. The woman stated that only the press were allowed to ask questions and that I would have to leave. While she was speaking to me, one of the men gave me a couple of solid hits in my back and then pushed me hard on my shoulder, almost knocking me out of my chair. I told her that I wasn't leaving, but that I wouldn't raise my hand again.
Some in the audience noticed. A reporter from the Baltimore Sun (Joe Mathews) had been seated next to me and gave me his card, stating that he thought the whole thing looked surprising.
After the Mayors’ presentation, Mike Flannery suggested that it would be better to do the interview outside. However, after the interview, I still needed to contact the reporter from the local Fox station so I tried re-entering the building to use a pay phone. One of the men who had come up behind me earlier in the auditorium was at the door and said that I was not allowed to enter and that I had "lied" to get in to begin with. He claimed that I had lied about being a member of the press to get in. He also told me that I was not a real university professor and that in my public criticism of Mayor Daley's gun policies I was abusing the University of Chicago's name and using it for my own political purposes.
I told him that I would like to reenter to make a telephone call and that I had not lied to get in -- I told him that he could check the log book and see that I signed in as being with the University of Chicago. At this time the female guard locked the door into the facility and said to the plainclothes man that it was now impossible for me to enter. The man appeared to have no interest in checking the log and told me to leave or he was going to call the police.
All of this was quite unsettling, but still I had no inkling of what was yet to come. In a few days, I got an e-mail from the Dean of the Law School, Dan Fischel, where I was a fellow: "I received a disturbing call last Friday concerning alleged events involving you at the mayor's press conference the previous day. I need a memo from you describing in detail what happened."
Thus, I e-mailed the Dean describing the above details. A few days later, I was given an ultimatum. I had to either: 1) immediately resign from the university and I would receive the money that I would have gotten through the end of the year or 2) Stay on through the end of my contract in July but promise not to talk to the press any more while I was there.
I wrote back to Dean Fischel -- with whom I believe I had been on good terms with -- that I was "stunned and shocked at being requested to resign" and pointed out that I had gone to the conference to answer questions about my research at reporters’ requests, not to cause trouble. And I asked him whether, if I took option 2, I could still talk about my book that had been released that year and my other research.
He responded: "I cannot give you a specific answer to your questions," and noted, "With respect t[o] damage to your reputation, many think you have only yourself to blame by winding up in a public confrontation at the mayor's press conference."
In a later e-mail, he added: "If you cannot make yourself for all practical purposes invisible (at least in terms of any mention of the university), you should resign."
I ended up taking the second option, and completely stopped talking to the media for about 4 months. Only in March with just a couple months left at the University of Chicago did I again start accepting requests to write op-ed pieces and do radio and TV interviews on my book.
In retrospect, I probably should have gone to the press immediately. But, at the time, I worried that doing so would make life difficult for others who caught in the middle of all this, such as Dean Fischel.
I was also worried that telling these almost unbelievable events would be harmful for myself because academia frowns on people who generate controversy.
Chicago magazine ran a story on this incident in August, 2006, and described the events this way: "a man in the audience, a fierce defender of the right to carry a gun, tried to interrupt the mayor with pointed questions. That was John R. Lott . . . stories made the rounds that he had heckled the mayor until police took him from the room. Lott denies this account vigorously."
It should have been easy to check whether I had left the event with reporter Mike Flannery or whether I heckled the mayor and was removed by police. I had provided the author of the Chicago magazine piece, James Merrier, all the material presented here. After the piece ran, Merrier responded to an e-mail by me, noting: "I did talk with Mike Flannery and his memory of the incident largely squared with yours. Largely for that reason, I did not go into more detail about who was there and why. Had I done so, I doubt it would have survived the editing process."
Unfortunately, Chicago magazine was more interested in repeating the more sensational, false charges against me than in letting readers know whether they were correct. Alas, despite my request, not even the University of Chicago checked whether my version of events was true and they never contacted the reporters that I had cited. Presumably it just would have been too inconvenient to obtain information that contradicted Mayor Daley's version of events.
In any case, the desire to avoid the whole issue has remained more than a decade after the original events. Even the University of Chicago Press, publisher of "More Guns, Less Crime," refused to allow me to discuss the events about the mayor in the third edition, which came out in 2010.
With Daley about to leave office, there will be a lot of retrospectives in the media about his tenure as mayor. Daley obviously feels passionately about gun control, but using government threats to stop academics from taking positions that he disagrees with goes too far. Who knows how extensive these methods of chilling speech were? It's unlikely that my unfortunate experience was the only instance of Mayor Daley silencing his opposition.
John R. Lott, Jr. is a FoxNews.com contributor. He is an economist and author of the just released revised edition of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2010).