MANHATTAN (CN) — Fighting for a teacher who was fired after her class dissected race issues in the rape of the Central Park jogger, an attorney told the Second Circuit on Tuesday that their case boils down to academic freedom.
“You can’t allow vice principals to stick their head in and say, ‘I don’t like what you said because it disagrees with my political views. You’re fired,” attorney Stephen Bergstein told a three-judge panel.
Roughly two years ago, Harvard-educated teacher Jeena Lee-Walker lost her job at the High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry after administrators objected to the curriculum of her ninth-grade English class.
Lee-Walker’s lesson at the Upper West Side school delved into the 1989 rape of Trisha Melli in Central Park. In a case marked by hysterical tabloid headlines about teens in “wolf packs” going on “wilding” crime sprees, prosecutors quickly won the convictions of five black and Latino teenagers.
Antron McRay, Raymond Santana Jr., Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam had all spent several years in prison before before DNA evidence showed in 2002 that there was another perpetrator.
The Central Park Five, as they became known, later filed a civil-rights lawsuit that ended in a $41 million judgment, and their case inspired a documentary presenting their case as a racially motivated rush to judgment.
Lee-Walker meanwhile, who contends that the school violated her First Amendment and due-process rights, has been less successful.
The Second Circuit convened Tuesday to look at U.S. District Judge John Koeltl’s dismissal of her complaint.
“Bear in mind,” attorney Bergstein told the three-judge panel, “that teachers aren’t teaching merely reading, writing and ’rithmatic. They’re talking to the students. They do it every day. They did it when I was a kid, and they do it now. They do have a relationship with students about the world, and what’s going on, and the election, and things that are happening.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier pushed back against the idea that administrators terminated Lee-Walker over a political disagreement.
“That’s not what was said, according to the complaint here,” Lohier said.
Bergstein replied that the administrators’ words were “even worse.”
According to the lawsuit, the school’s vice principal Christopher Yarmy said the lesson could “rile up” black students, potentially sparking “little riots.'”
“That’s completely inappropriate,” Bergman said. “These are ninth-grade kids! They’re not going to riot.”
Even though the Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated, New York City still refuses to admit wrongdoing in their prosecution.
President Donald Trump, who took out full-page ads implicitly calling for their execution in 1989, still insisted on teens’ guilt last year on the campaign trail.
Lohier said that school administrators may have been pushing for more neutrality.
“One way of viewing what was said by the school officials is we want you to provide some balance,” the judge said. “That’s ultimately what was recommended.”
New York City’s lawyer Jonathan Popolow also made this point in his arguments.
“They were just saying, ‘You have to teach both sides of it’ — that’s all that is alleged,” he said.
In 2006, the Supreme Court gutted the free-speech of public employees in the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, where a 5-4 majority found that a government worker’s speech is not protected if it is related to the duties of his job.
Citing this case several times, Popolow said: “There’s no genuine dispute that there are legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Bergstein wants the court meanwhile to apply the more permissive standard of Silano v. Sag Harbor, where the Second Circuit found that teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech … at the schoolhouse gate.”
“If defendants are correct that this is a Garcetti case, then probably 99 percent of everything a teacher says in front of a classroom has no constitutional protection,” Bergstein said. “That cannot be the law.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Amalya Kearse and Debra Ann Livingston also sat on Tuesday’s three-judge panel, which reserved decision on the case.