NEW YORK (AP) — The free-speech rights of the founding principal of the city’s first Arabic-themed school were not violated when she was forced out after being criticized for what she said during a newspaper interview, a judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein made the finding as he read a lengthy opinion in his Manhattan courtroom addressing the history of Debbie Almontaser as an educator in the nation’s largest public school system.
Almontaser had sued schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying they violated her First Amendment rights when she was pressured to step down after she discussed the history of the word “intifada,” an Arabic term commonly used to refer to the Palestinian uprising against Israel, during an August interview.
The judge said Almontaser participated in the interview in her role as acting principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn. He said speech is not protected when it occurs as part of the duties of an employee working for an employer that has a responsibility to supervise and monitor its messages to the public.
Almontaser lost her position after she was criticized for not condemning the use of the word “intifada” on a T-shirt made by a youth organization.
She said the meaning of her words was distorted after she told a reporter that “intifada” stemmed from a root word meaning “shake off” and that the word has different meanings for different people but certainly implies violence to many, especially in connection with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The judge noted that she had been instructed by the press staff for the schools not to discuss the T-shirts.
The New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the judge’s ruling.
“This is just another example of how recent Supreme Court rulings are undermining constitutional rights in general and First Amendment rights in particular,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director. “Public employees now have every right to be worried about being fired for their speech.”
Almontaser also was asking the judge to stop the city from looking for a new principal. But the judge said he wouldn’t block the job search.
City law department senior counsel James Lemonedes called the ruling well reasoned because Almontaser should not be able to force the city to reconsider her for the principal position.
“Her application had been previously considered, in accordance with the chancellor’s regulations, and she was not recommended for interviews,” he said. “We are comfortable the judge’s decision will be affirmed if the plaintiffs choose to appeal.”
Several weeks ago, the city said Almontaser will not be renamed principal of the Gibran academy. It said she had resigned to ensure the stability of the school and the schools chancellor agreed with her decision and considered the matter closed.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg had called Almontaser’s resignation the “right thing to do.”
The judge’s ruling Wednesday did not end the case, however. Almontaser’s lawsuit proceeds to a trial based on more evidence rather than the two-day hearing on which the judge based his preliminary ruling.
The school, named for the Lebanese Christian poet who promoted peace, opened quietly in September with 55 sixth-grade students enrolled. It is the first in the city to teach Arabic and Arab culture.