No Damages for Teacher Over Black-Face Lesson

zwartepietNEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Christmas has come early in New Jersey after a federal judge tossed out free-speech claims by a teacher who caused a stir by talking about her Dutch family’s penchant for holiday black face.

Though scorned in the United States, black face still crops up around the holidays in the Netherlands where there is a legend about Zwarte Piete, literally Black Peter, a Spanish Moor who is believed to be a helper of Santa Claus.

David Sedaris wrote about Zwarte Piete in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men,” and teacher Regina Melnyk included the work as part of the curriculum for her 2013 creative-writing class at Teaneck High School.

That December, school administrators placed a written reprimand in Melnyk’s personnel file after a black student reported having been offended by the direction of the lesson.

It is undisputed that Melnyk, who is of Dutch ancestry, showed the class a picture on her cellphone of her relatives in the Netherlands dressed in black face.

When the student slammed the photograph as racist, Melnyk noted “in defense of her family … that it was a culture difference,” and that the Dutch had actually abolished slavery long before the United States.

Though Melnyk succeeded last year in having the reprimand from her file removed, she then brought a federal complaint for damages against the school district.

Claiming violations of her First and 14th Amendment rights, Melnyk objected to Teaneck’s anti-harassment policy as overly broad, saying it would chill even a health teacher from the possibility of offending vegan students by mentioning meat as a source of protein in a balanced diet.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo found the example inapt, however, and dismissed Melnyk’s case on Nov. 22.

“No reasonable person would find that a teacher’s statement advocating eating meat for protein can be ‘perceived as motivated’ by his student’s vegan characteristic,” the 18-page opinion states. “Even if one could find such a motive, the statement would also need to cause substantial disruption or interference with the “orderly operation of the school or the rights of … students.’ It is difficult to imagine how a discussion on the topic of protein diets could possibly lead to a disruption of the school or interference with the rights of any students.”

Finding that Melnyk’s in-classroom expression did not qualify as “a matter of public concern,” Arleo said her “speech fits squarely within the framework of non-protected, curricular speech.”

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