Federal appeals judges on Tuesday made comments suggesting they thought the city overreacted in its handling of the resignation of the principal of its first Arabic-themed public school as they heard arguments aimed at letting her get her job back.
Two members of the three-judge panel were sharply critical of the way the city reacted to a newspaper interview Debbie Almontaser conducted before she stepped down in August as interim principal at the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
City lawyer Drake Colley conceded that what Almontaser said in the interview was correct and that a Department of Education spokesperson who monitored the interview thought it went well.
Judge Jon Newman asked: "Does the city really think she was properly disciplined?"
Colley said the city handled the case as it did because the Brooklyn school was a lightning rod for negative press and because of a potential for disruption that was fueled by her comments.
Almontaser, a longtime New York educator and a Muslim of Yemeni descent, said she was forced to resign because of criticism she endured after discussing in the interview the word "intifada," an Arabic term commonly used to refer to the Palestinian uprising against Israel.
Critics said Almontaser should have condemned the use of "intifada" on T-shirts made by a youth organization.
Education officials denied they forced Almontaser to resign and refused to consider rehiring her.
Almontaser sued, and a judge last year rejected her First Amendment arguments, saying she made her remarks in her capacity as an employee of the city.
The school, which opened last September with about 60 students and emphasizes Arabic and Arab culture, is named for the Lebanese Christian poet and peace advocate. A new principal was hired last month.
Although the appeals court did not immediately rule Tuesday, Newman and Barrington D. Parker Jr. repeatedly questioned the city's intentions in its handling of the uproar.
Newman said it appeared the city reacted to a controversy that emerged based on how the newspaper portrayed the comments made by Almontaser.
"So if a city employee speaks to the press, they're at risk that the press garbles their remarks, and then they get fired? That's quite a position for the city of New York," Newman said.
"It's altogether possible under a specific circumstance, your honor," Colley responded. "I can't speak to every circumstance."
"Well, that's the circumstance here," Parker said.
Newman exhaled deeply and then said, "Boy!"
Colley said he had never heard of the word "intifada" until he began working on the case. He said he looked up a definition on Google.
Newman touched off laughter in the room when he said: "You better not tell anyone what you found on Google. Your job may be in jeopardy here."