Thursday, March 20, 2008

No First Amendment claim for Principal accused of harboring radical beliefs

The Second Circuit agreed on March 20 that a public school had the right to punish an acting high school Principal who spoke to the New York Post about her alleged connection to an organization that promotes radical Islam and Palestinian causes. Although the principal denied any relationship with any of these controversial organizations, the district court found -- and the Second Circuit agreed -- that her First Amendment claim is likely to fail.

The case is Almontaser v. New York City Department of Education. Almontaser was acting Prinicipal at a public high school offering classes in Arab language and culture. The school prepares students for careers in international affairs and diplomacy. An activist group accused Amontaser of associating with an organization known as Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media which distributed t-shirts bearing the words "Intafada NYC." This created an uproar in the local media, so the New York Post interviewed Almontaser over the phone, with a Department of Education press officer on the line. Almontaser denied any relationship with that organization and, according to the Court of Appeals, the New York Post misquoted her in stating that the t-shirts were an "opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society."

In the wake of the New York Post's misleading article, the City denied Almontaser's application for the position of permanent Principal. She moved for an injunction in district court, which ruled against her. The Court of Appeals sustains that injunction denial, reasoning that Almontaser made her statement to the New York Post as part of her official job duties, as the Department of Education required her to speak to the media about this issue and also oversaw her interview with the newspaper. This means that her statement was not protected by the First Amendment, which only protects "citizen" speech, not "official job duty" speech.

The Supreme Court drew the distinction between citizen and official job speech in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), raising the ire of many plaintiffs' advocates who think that ruling sharply limits the speech rights of public employees. The Second Circuit has yet to issue a definitive ruling on the scope of that ruling. For the time being, the Court of Appeals has nibbled around the edges of Garcetti.

Almontaser's case is not over. It returns to the district court for additional proceedings. The Second Circuit notes that one issue for the district court is "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 believe the issue is best addressed in the first instance by the district court."

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