A federal appeals court has upheld a New Jersey school district’s firing of a teacher who allegedly taught his high school history students denial of the Holocaust and conspiracy theories linking the United States to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The teacher, Jason Mostafa Ali, alleged that his dismissal from Woodbridge (N.J.) High School in 2016 was discriminatory based on his race and his perceived religion. Ali is of Egyptian descent and is described in court papers as a nonpracticing Muslim. He alleged that staff members at the school had made disparaging remarks about him based on race and religion.
But both a federal district court and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled for the school district.
“There are no nuances to be discerned regarding the Holocaust. It is a historic fact,” the 3rd Circuit court said in its April 22 decision in Ali v. Woodbridge Township School District. “That tragic event in human history along with the 9/11 terrorist attacks lie at the center of this matter.”
Ali began work as a history teacher at Woodbridge High in September 2015, and by the following May reports were trickling up to the school administration that the teacher was offering unorthodox views about the Holocaust and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
One student wrote in a paper submitted in Ali’s class that “Adolf Hitler ... is looked at as a bad guy but in reality brought Germany out of its great depression.” Another of Ali’s students wrote that “what they claim happened in the concentration camps did not really happen” and that “Jews ... had a much easier and more enjoyable life in the camps.”
For a lesson on 9/11, Ali posted links on a school website for his students to access articles from Egypt and Saudi Arabia that suggest the United States was involved in the attacks and that it planned a similar attack on ISIS in 2015 using Al-Queda terrorists.
In September 2016, after a TV news reporter questioned school administrators about the 9/11 materials, the school district dismissed Ali.
He sued the district and administrators in state court, alleging violations of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination as well as a federal law that bars race considerations in contracting.
The school district removed the suit to federal court. In a deposition, Ali was asked about some of the conclusions his students had come to about the Holocaust as expressed in papers they wrote. For example, Ali was asked about whether he taught his students “to question the facts as to whether Hitler chose to brutally abuse, take advantage, starve and murder Jews for absolutely no reason at all.”
Ali said he taught his students “to question everything.”
When asked in the deposition whether he “encouraged” his students to “come to different views than the traditional understanding of what World War II and the Holocaust and Hitler were about,” Ali responded “Yeah, it’s called debate.”
A federal district court issued summary judgment to the defendants, and the 3rd Circuit panel upheld that decision with its ruling this week.
The appeals court said Ali failed to offer evidence that racial or religious bias motivated administrators to fire him and that the district had legitimate reasons for its action.
“Evidence such as the students’ assignments ... and Ali’s deposition testimony show that Ali permitted conspiracy-theorist and Hitler-apologist presentations in his class and encouraged students to develop these opinions,” the court said.
Comments that Ali alleges certain staff members had made to him, such as “Hey Arabia Nights” and “Hey, Big Egypt,” were “offensive,” the court said, but were not so pervasive as to alter his working conditions to support a discrimination claim.
The appeals court also rejected Ali’s claim that posting links to articles containing “alternative views” on the 9/11 attacks was protected by the First Amendment.
“Based on our case law, Ali did not have a right to decide what would be taught in the classroom,” the court said.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.