In August, 2007, Debbie Almontaser was the interim principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, an Arabic language public high school she had worked with the New York City Department of Education for two years to establish. Though the school was secular (a point Almontaser sought to emphasize by naming the school for the famous Christian Lebanese poet), an ad hoc interest group called Stop the Madrassa formed and started a smear campaign in a concerted effort to block its establishment. Members of this loose coalition openly expressed that they were interested in targeting not just Muslim extremists, but moderate Muslims, who they see as threatening American values by demanding religious accommodations.
The group went after Almontaser and alleged that Almontaser was affiliated with an organization called AWAAM (Arab Women Active in the Media and the Arts), which had printed T-shirts bearing the logo “Intifada NYC.” Almontaser’s only connection to the group was that she sat on the board of another organization that allowed AWAAM to use its office space. This connection was enough to incite media attention, particularly by The New York Post and the now-defunct New York Sun.
Based on The Post’s treatment of Arabs and Muslims, Almontaser expressed reluctance in responding to requests for interviews; however, her employer, the Department of Education insisted that she speak to a reporter from the newspaper. Though the subject of the interview was clearly the controversial T-shirts, Almontaser’s contact at the DOE further instructed Almontaser not to comment on the T-shirts. Unsurprisingly, the reporter inquired about the T-shirts and Almontaser handled the question by offering a literal definition of the Arabic word, “intifada,” as meaning “shaking off.” She explained that the word had developed a “negative connotation,” by being tied to the Arab-Israeli struggle. After the interview, a DOE representative told Almontaser that she had done “a good job.”
When the article appeared in the Post the next day, it was under the headline, “City Principal is ‘Revolting’ – Tied to ‘Intifada NYC’ Shirts,” and misquoted Almontaser so that she seemed to be saying that she considered the T-shirts an “opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society … and shaking off oppression.” (the words “shaking off oppression” were lifted from her definition and misleadingly added to her statement regarding the shirts). Following the publication of the article, the DOE received criticism regarding Almontaser. Instead of taking this opportunity to clarify The Post’s inaccurate representation, DOE officials forced Almontaser to publicly apologize for her comments (drafting the words of the apology themselves), and then subsequently, the agency forced her to resign in response to pressure from city officials including the mayor’s office. Almontaser agreed to step down.
With a group of educators and members of the Muslim and Jewish communities supporting her, Almontaser subsequently filed a federal lawsuit claiming that her First Amendment rights had been violated and seeking to enjoin the DOE from hiring someone else for the vacant post. The district court judge refused to issue an injunction, relying on a case called Garcetti v. Ceballos, which states that government employees who are speaking pursuant to “official duties,” receive no free speech protection. He, therefore, found that Almontaser’s speech was therefore unprotected. As many First Amendment scholars have noted, Garcetti has produced a litany of absurd results, including punishing employees who report wrongdoings by their supervisors or employees who express criticism for workplace policies.
Almontaser’s attorneys appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In its decision, the appellate court stated that it could not overrule Judge Stein on First Amendment grounds as the district court had not “abused its discretion.” However, the absurdity of the DOE’s actions did not escape the Second Circuit’s notice and it sent the case back to the district court, posing the following question: “[W]hether 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.”
This past Wednesday Judge Stein dismissed the case, ruling that Almontaser was not entitled to any First Amendment protections for her statements in the interview. He also ruled that she had not been entitled to protection from arbitrary action by the city education department because she had been an interim school principal, and could therefore have been fired for no good reason at all.
The official statement from the attorney representing the City is that the “City” is “pleased” with the outcome. I’m not sure why. What happened to Almontaser was shameful and unjust, even if Judge Stein did not find that the City had crossed the line to acting unlawfully.
Almontaser was indisputably the top contender for the position of principal. Both the district court and appellate court acknowledged that Almontaser had spoken accurately, had been misquoted by The Post, and that the DOE had full knowledge that this is what had transpired. In the heat of the controversy, city officials ignored an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of such understanding in the post 9/11 climate in New York City. Thus, we are left with the bare conclusion that the DOE bent to the will of the school’s detractors because it was politically less risky than to defend Almontaser’s speech and to educate the public. The actions of the Department of Education and city officials in the mayor’s office exhibited nothing short of cowardice.
It is unfortunate that there appears to be no remedy at law for Almontaser. However, it is even more unfortunate the education department willingly denied New York City public school children from a visionary at the helm of a school designed to “foster multi-cultural understanding and to prepare students for careers in international affairs and diplomacy.” (The DOE replaced Almontaser initially with a principal who did not even speak Arabic.)
In light of all this, it is worth asking a few years later, what victory the City thinks it has won? And while the Garcetti case may allow “the City” to behave this arbitrarily, should its citizens?