The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to consider an appeal from a teacher who was fired by the New York City public schools after information surfaced that he was a leader in a group that advocates the legalization of sex between adult men and underage boys.
A federal appeals court last summer upheld the 2000 dismissal of Peter Melzer, who taught for three decades at one of the city’s premier academic high schools.
Alleging that the firing violated his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association, the teacher had asked the high court to review the unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City. Without comment, the justices declined to do so on Feb. 23.
“I’m deeply disappointed,” Mr. Melzer said in a telephone interview. “I always behaved above reproach. It’s purely a matter of free speech. I had taught for 30 years, and to have one’s career ended that way is a very bitter experience.”
But a lawyer for the city said the district was “very pleased” by the high court’s action in Melzer v. Board of Education of New York City (Case No. 03-936).
“We believe that the 2nd Circuit was correct in all respects,” said Ronald E. Sternberg, a city attorney who handled the case.
Mr. Melzer was a leader in the North American Man/Boy Love Association, and while he readily admits being sexually attracted to young adolescent boys, he has not been accused of sexual misconduct with students in the district. The stated goal of NAMBLA, which is based in New York City, is “to end the oppression of men and boys who have mutually consensual relationships,” according to its Web site.
In Loco Parentis
In firing Mr. Melzer, officials in the 1.1 million- student district contended that his activities had undermined his effectiveness as a teacher and disrupted operations at the Bronx High School of Science, where he had taught physics since 1962.
Many parents and students protested when media reports revealed in 1993 that Mr. Melzer was a leader in NAMBLA. Since joining the group a quarter-century ago, Mr. Melzer has served in various leadership roles, including as a member of its steering committee and the editor of its magazine. Investigators who handled his case pointed with particular alarm at articles that offered advice on how to avoid arrest for sex with underage boys or possession of child pornography, according to court papers.
In its 3-0 ruling last July, the 2nd Circuit court held that Mr. Melzer’s free-speech and free-association activities were protected under the First Amendment, but that those rights were outweighed by the district’s interests in effectively carrying out its public duties.
Asserting that teaching “by its very nature requires a degree of public trust not found in many other positions of public employment,” the panel noted that Mr. Melzer’s job put him in the role of acting “in loco parentis for a group of students that includes adolescent boys. At the same time, he advocates changes in the law that would accommodate his professed desire to have sexual relationships with such children.”
While the panel said the public cannot “shout down unpopular ideas that stir anger,” it described parental objections to keeping Mr. Melzer in the classroom as “perfectly reasonable,” and a justifiable consideration in determining whether to fire him.
“I am sorry about the final outcome,” said Eugene B. Nathanson, a New York lawyer who represented Mr. Melzer. “I think this case and the trend of First Amendment employee litigation is very dangerous for employees’ free- speech rights.”
Mr. Melzer, 65, compared his treatment with those who were advocates in the past for the abolition of slavery, voting rights for women, interracial marriage, and birth control.
“What any particular group fights against may not ultimately be accepted, but the point is that we pride ourselves on a Constitution that protects free speech,” he said. “It’s unpopular speech that should be protected.”