Gannett Said to Defame Muslim School Girl

     CINCINNATI (CN) — The Gannett Company, its newspapers, and a local school district are being sued by a Muslim-American doctor for publishing a photo and the full name of his 5-year-old daughter in a story claiming Arabic-speaking children are disproportionately draining the district’s resources.
     Ayman Mahdy filed the federal complaint on Aug. 17 against the media giant, its Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper and the Mason City Board of Education.
     He says the Enquirer published his daughter’s photo and name without permission in a story about the district’s “Destination Excellence” program.
     The program draws families from overseas to the Cincinnati area for treatment through Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and has, according to the article, placed a serious financial burden on the Mason City School District.
     The district’s superintendent, a principal and assistant principal and the child’s teacher, are also named as defendants in the suit, as are an editor, education reporter and photographer with the Cincinnati Enquirer.
     Mahdy claims that on Dec. 2, 2015, he picked up a copy of the Enquirer while in the break room at University Hospital where he works, and was shocked to see a large picture of his daughter that took up nearly half of the front page of the day’s paper. The articled attached to her photo headlined, “Arabic-speaking kids overwhelm Mason.”
     In the photo Mahdy’s daughter wore a name tag with her full name clearly visible, the suit says. Attached to the photo was a caption which said, “J.M. (the daughter’s full name), a kindergartner in Michelle Hasting’s class at Mason Early Childhood Learning Center, works with a student teacher on a reading lesson. J.M.’s first language is Arabic.”
     Aside from having emblazoned the 5-year-old’s full name on the front page, the article attached to her photo linked Mahdy’s daughter to Destination Excellence, and claims that many of the program’s participants are “transients on temporary visas who float in and out of the Mason community, utilizing financial resources without paying their fair share of school-funding taxes,” Mahdy says.
     The article furthermore suggests that 51 Arabic-speaking students connected with Destination Excellence have “overwhelmed” the local school district.
     More than 500 students speaking 64 languages are enrolled in the Mason City Schools, yet only Arabic-speaking students were singled out in the article, Mahdy says.
     Mahdy says he is, in fact, a legal U.S. resident and a surgeon at the University of Cincinnati Hospital. His daughter is a U.S. citizen, born in America, and speaks English as her first language. Mahdy’s three other children also attend the Mason City Schools, and as a homeowner in the district he pays property taxes which support the school system, his lawsuit says.
     Furthering the article’s inaccuracies, Mahdy’s family has never had any connection to the Destination Excellence program, and he and his wife at no time gave permission to the school district, its representatives, or the Cincinnati Enquirer to falsely associate their daughter with the program, take her picture or disclose her identity publicly.
     The story and photo were quickly placed on the Enquirer’s online news service and picked up by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, and other news outlets.
     Mahdy says as the article spread, editorial changes were made, including the addition of an out-of-context quote from the Qur’an that had previously been linked to a reader letter posted on Cincinnati.com entitled, “Islamic atrocities taking toll on our patience, psyche.”
     The newspaper later published a correction in its online edition, explaining legal errors made in the initial story, but Mahdy says Gannett compounded the harm done to his family by again publishing his daughter’s photo, name and the claim Arabic is her first language.
     Mahdy says once the article was published online, anyone with access to the Internet could search his daughter’s name and easily find her photo, school name, location, teacher, age and even her actual classroom.
     Not only was this a violation of her right to be free of discrimination based on national origin, ethnicity and religion, Mahdy says, but he believes it also places his daughter in potential physical jeopardy.
     Mahdy says the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and subsequent terrorist attacks here and abroad have created a climate of widespread fear and xenophobia toward Muslims.
     Mahdy points to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance of mosques and mandatory resignation of certain Muslims from positions of power as a prime example of “extreme views (resonating) with alarmingly large segments of the American population.”
     “The article feeds on the public mistrust of people from predominantly Muslim countries, and fear that ISIS infiltrators may be among them,” the lawsuit says.
     Indeed, following its publication, online reader comments “descended into xenophobia, anti-Muslim prejudice, and outright racism,” including, “Can we not look to countries that have been dealing with these same problems like Sweden, Belgium, France, UK, Germany and see the mess these immigrant Muslims have made there??” and “Wahhabi Islam is the cancer of the world.”
     Mahdy claims the article offered nothing but “thinly veiled pandering to irrational fear and prejudice against all Muslims because of the acts of a few” when it ultimately linked the local school district’s budget problems to the Muslim population.
     He is suing the Mason City School District for invasion of privacy and First and Fourteenth Amendment violations, as well as for violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs receiving federal funds.
     Superintendant Gail Kist-Kline is listed individually as a defendant for contacting the Cincinnati Enquirer in an effort to single out and create negative publicity regarding the Arabic-speaking students in her district.
     Principal Melissa Bly, Assistant Principal Erin Bucher and teacher Michelle Hastings are listed as defendants for providing access to Mahdy’s daughter without permission.
     Cincinnati Enquirer editor Peter Bhatia, education reporter Hannah Sparling and photographer Amanda Rossman worked with Kist-Kline to single out a “generic-looking Arab girl” to feature in the article with the hope of increasing readership and revenue through fear tactics, Mahdy says.
     They are listed as individual and joint defendants in the suit along with Gannett. Co., The Cincinnati Enquirer, USA Today and Cincinnati.com.
     Mahdy seeks damages and compensation to cover the cost of private schools for his daughter to ensure her safety in the aftermath of the article’s publication.
     He also requests declaratory and injunctive relief against Gannett, and an court order that Gannett and its publications remove his daughter’s name and image from all company websites.
     Mahdy is represented by Kenneth Hawley of Cincinnati.
     Representatives of the school district did not immediately respond to a telephone call seeking comment on the lawsuit.

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