First Person

Another Blow to Civic Discourse: Almontaser v. NYC Board of Education

Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Sidney H. Stein issued a decision in Almontaser v. New York City Board of Education, 07 Civ. 10444, finding that a principal fired for statements leading to a misleading press report was not protected under the First Amendment.

The decision and the actions it protects are problematic on grounds of law and policy. First is the misapplication of precedent by the District Court, carried over from an earlier opinion and repeated by a Circuit Court ruling in the same case. Second, and perhaps more seriously, is the extent to which the Bloomberg administration continues to push a policy agenda squelching free expression.

Background

On August 5, 2007, New York Post reporter Chuck Bennett interviewed Debbie Almontaser, the interim acting principal of the Kahlil Gibran International Academy, a New York City public school which was due to open the following September. KGIA was the focus of intense public scrutiny for its emphasis on Arab language and culture. Also at issue was an allegation that Almontaser had ties to Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media which had created t-shirts stating “Intifada NYC.”

Asked about her affiliation with AWAAM and the t-shirts during the interview, which was organized and monitored by the New York City Department of Education’s press office, Almontaser denied any connection with the organization and explained she would never affiliate herself with an organization condoning violence. Further, she explained that the root of the word means “shaking off.”

The next day, the Post published Bennett’s story under the headline “City Principal is ‘Revolting.” with a picture of Almontaser captioned, “Furor: The Pro-violence shirt is being defended by Principal Debbie Almontaser.” The story also incorrectly added the phrase “and shaking off oppression” to Almontaser’s statement.

As a result of the ensuing controversy over Almontaser’s misattributed remarks and the paper’s incendiary language, the DOE forced her to resign the interim principal post and, when the permanent position of principal was advertised, quickly passed over her application. Almontaser then sued the DOE (technically, the New York City Board of Education) for retaliatory firing in violation of her First Amendment right to free speech.

Legal Mistake

The courts found that Almontaser lacked First Amendment protection because her remarks took place in the context of her public employment. While the facts above, as described by the District Court, clearly point to the interview as an official duty under the supervision of the DOE, Almontaser claimed that her misreported “intifada” remarks were disconnected from her statements about KGIA and her employment there.

Educators’ political statements on matters of general public interest have long been protected under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Pickering v. Board of Education. But the District and Circuit courts relied on a more recent case, Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that speech by a public official is only protected if it is engaged in as a private citizen, not if it is expressed as part of the official’s public duties.

However, the Almontaser courts failed to acknowledge Garcetti’s explicit exemption for statements related to academic matters. The majority stated, “We need not, and for that reason do not, decide whether the analysis we conduct today would apply in the same manner to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching.” at p. 13. That determination – clearly at issue but ignored in Almontaser — was reached by the Court because of Justice Souter’s clear statement in dissent:

“As for the importance of such speech to the individual, it stands to reason that a citizen may well place a very high value on a right to speak on the public issues he decides to make the subject of his work day after day. Would anyone doubt that a school principal evaluating the performance of teachers for promotion or pay adjustment retains a citizen’s interest in addressing the quality of teaching in the schools? . . . Indeed, the very idea of categorically separating the citizen’s interest from the employee’s interest ignores the fact that the ranks of public service include those who share the poet’s “object … to unite [m]y avocation and my vocation;” these citizen servants are the ones whose civic interest rises highest when they speak pursuant to their duties, and these are exactly the ones government employers most want to attract. There is no question that public employees speaking on matters they are obliged to address would generally place a high value on a right to speak, as any responsible citizen would.” at 5, footnotes omitted.

Thus, a strong argument can be made that, despite the context of an official interview like that in Garcetti, Almontaser met that case’s exception by commenting as an educator on a matter of general public interest related to the academic focus of her school. Such a result is consistent with Garcetti and the high value the Constitution places on public discourse in a free society.

Problematic Policy

Even accepting the courts’ mistaken analysis, the firing of a principal for a controversial remark – and here, a remark she did not even make! – is dangerous public policy. By firing Almontaser, the Chancellor (and by extension, the Mayor he works for), has impoverished robust public debate, a core value of a free society.

This is nothing new. The Mayor has shown hostility to unruly voices before. His preventive detention of protestors at the Republican National Convention in 2004 was subsequently met by wholesale dismissal of police charges. He banned the wearing of campaign buttons by teachers, an action upheld in court.

But just because the Mayor can suppress speech, doesn’t mean he must suppress speech. The First Amendment exists to promote a marketplace of ideas and we are the losers when government limits access to unpopular thought.

In the Almontaser case, the Mayor’s famous espousal of principal autonomy is once again exposed as an empty promise that “You can do as you like as long as I like what you do.” Such a philosophy may lead to smooth operational control but the public sector and schools, especially, are the worse for it. Public institutions are fundamentally strengthened by American values of active civic discourse. The courts should pay heed the next time the city puts free expression to the test.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.