To the Editor:
Your news item “Principal’s Comments to Press Were Not Protected Speech” (“Principal’s Comments to Press Were Not Protected Speech,” Sept. 7, 2009), about the recent decision in Almontaser v. New York City Department of Education, implies that the case is over. It is not.
The decision is the latest chapter of a controversy that began with the selection of Debbie Almontaser to head the newly created Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arab dual-language school. Almost from the day she was appointed, Ms. Almontaser, an observant Muslim, was subjected to a virulent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim smear campaign. When she was interviewed by the New York Post in August of 2007 and was asked about the Arabic meaning of the word “intifada,” which had appeared on T-shirts that were sold at an Arab Heritage festival, her response provoked a firestorm of controversy, even though the definition she gave, “shaking off,” was accurate. Her response also noted that the word had become associated with violence in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Nevertheless, city and school officials demanded her resignation. She subsequently filed a federal lawsuit charging that her First Amendment rights had been violated.
Given the skepticism that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit expressed about the New York City Department of Education’s actions, when it asked “whether a public employee, who is required by her employer to speak to the press as a condition of her employment, may be sanctioned for speaking accurately when her statement is, as her employer knows, inaccurately reported and then misconstrued by the press,” we had hoped that U.S. District Court Judge Sidney H. Stein would reconsider his earlier decision in the case. However, we will appeal again to the 2nd Circuit court. In addition, we will continue to pursue Ms. Almontaser’s claim before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and eventually in federal court, that the education department, in capitulating to the storm of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice that was directed at Ms. Almontaser in the media, discriminated against her on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
Nothing in the recent decision questions the underlying facts concerning the department’s actions: Ms. Almontaser was the taget of hate-filled attacks because she was an Arab and a Muslim and because she said something that public officials disagreed with. Our Constitution and statutes are designed to ensure that prejudice and controversial speech do not cost people their jobs. We are confident that the courts will ultimately vindicate those basic human rights.
New York, N.Y.
(The writer is Debbie Almontaser’s lawyer.)
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Muslim Principal’s Case Remains in Litigation