NEW YORK (AP) — The founding principal of the city's first Arabic-themed school, forced out over comments she made to a newspaper about the word "intifada," is not entitled to get her job back, a judge said in a preliminary ruling Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein said Debbie Almontaser's free-speech rights were not violated because she made the comments in her role as acting principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn. Her employer, the city, has a responsibility to supervise and monitor its messages to the public, he said.
Almontaser had sued schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She stepped down under pressure in August after she was criticized for not condemning the use of the word "intifada" on a T-shirt made by a youth organization. Instead she discussed the history of the Arabic term, which is commonly used to refer to the Palestinian uprising against Israel.
Almontaser said the meaning of her words was distorted after she told a reporter that "intifada" stemmed from a root word meaning "shake off" and that the word has different meanings for different people but certainly implies violence to many, especially in connection with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The judge noted that she had been instructed by the press staff for the schools not to discuss the T-shirts. He rejected her requests to be reinstated and to stop the city from looking for a new principal.
Almontaser's lawsuit will proceed to a trial, but the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the judge's ruling.
"This is just another example of how recent Supreme Court rulings are undermining constitutional rights in general and First Amendment rights in particular," said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director. "Public employees now have every right to be worried about being fired for their speech."
City law department senior counsel James Lemonedes called the ruling well reasoned.
Several weeks ago, the city said Almontaser would not be renamed principal of the Gibran academy. It said that she had resigned to ensure the stability of the school and that the chancellor agreed with her decision and considered the matter closed.
The school, named for the Lebanese Christian poet who promoted peace, opened quietly in September with 55 sixth-grade students enrolled. It is the city's first to focus on teaching Arabic and Arab culture.