Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Fight will continue to defend rights of New York teacher ousted for political reasons

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Alan Levine, one of Ms. Almontaser’s lawyers, gave this statement in response to yesterday’s decision against the founding principal of an Arabic-language school for explaining the nonviolent origins of the word intifada:

“A federal district court in New York dismissed the lawsuit filed by Debbie Almontaser against the Mayor and the Department of Education. The decision is the latest chapter of a controversy that began with the selection of Ms. 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 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 Second Circuit Court of Appeals expressed about the DOE’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 Judge Stein would reconsider his earlier decision. However, we will appeal again to the Second Circuit. In addition, we will continue to pursue her claim before the EEOC, and eventually in federal court, that the DOE, 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 yesterday’s decision questions the underlying facts concerning the DOE’s actions: Ms. Almontaser was the target 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 insure that prejudice and controversial speech do not cost people their jobs. We are confident that the courts will ultimately vindicate those basic human rights.”