Principal’s Comments to Press Were Not Protected Speech

By Mark Walsh — September 07, 2009 2 min read
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A New York City school administrator’s controversial comments to a newspaper were provided as part of her official duties, and thus they were not protected by the First Amendment, a federal district judge has ruled.

The decision came in the much-debated case of Debbie Almontaser, who was the acting interim principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, public school in the city, in August 2007 when she gave an interview to the New York Post about the school. The Post’s story twisted her words, Almontasers supporters say, to suggest that the administrator was sympathetic to Islamic radicals.

(Almontaser’s case was featured as part of an HBO documentary, “Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech.”)

Amid a firestorm of controversy, Almontaser resigned the interim position, but later applied to become the school’s principal. The New York City school system’s refusal to hire her prompted a lawsuit that charged retaliation for expressing her views.

Both the federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, have already ruled against Almontaser’s efforts seeking a preliminary injunction. (The 2nd Circuit’s 2008 ruling is here.)

In the latest decision, issued Sept. 1 in Almontaser v. New York City Department of Education, U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein granted summary judgment to the school system on the former administrator’s amended lawsuit. (Thanks to the National School Boards Association’s Legal Clips for the tip and the text of the decision.)

Judge Stein held that Almontaser’s case was governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which the justices ruled that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, they are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and “the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

Judge Stein said the parties agree that Almontaser’s official duties included speaking with the press.

“Thus, the only question is whether Almontaser can carve out a portion of her statements made during an interview that was arranged and supervised by her employer as the protected speech of a private citizen,” the judge said. “When that entire interview owes its existence to Almontaser’s official
responsibility to interact with the press on behalf of [her school], then the individual statements made within the conversation also fall within her official—and thus unprotected—speech.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.