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Racist Internet Post Leads to Civil Rights Beef

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) - A former school secretary who posted a racist comment about President Obama on Facebook sued the school district, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights by firing him for the post.

Abel Gonzalez sued the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District in Federal Court.

Harlingen, pop. 65,000, is 14 miles from the U.S.-Mexico.

"On Saturday, August 25, 2012 at 9:08 a.m., plaintiff was at home on his own personal computer, when plaintiff received an e-mail from the Huffington Post's Facebook page," the complaint states. "The Facebook page had a picture of a little girl chasing President Obama in the Oval Office and beneath the picture were the words, 'Caption this.' Plaintiff wrote 'Run Nigger Run.'"

Gonzalez says he thought nothing about it for the next week.

"However on August 31, 2012, Mr. C. Orlando Pettiford clicked on plaintiff's Facebook profile and discovered that plaintiff was school secretary at Dr. Rodriguez Elementary in Harlingen, Texas" the complaint states.

"Mr. Pettiford then reposted plaintiff's posting from the Huffington Post Facebook page to Dr. Rodriguez Elementary's Facebook page. It is important to note that Mr. Pettiford is an African-American from Pennsylvania."

That same day, Gonzalez says, school principal Tracy Gonzalez received notice that Pettiford had posted a picture to the school's Facebook page.

"Ms. Gonzalez viewed the photo Mr. Pettiford had re-posted from the Huffington Post Facebook page and read the comment made by Mr. Pettiford," the complaint states. "Mr. Pettiford wrote 'Click on the above picture ... then read the COMMENT made by one of your directors!!! ABEL GONZALEZ!!! Is this what you are teaching your students? Is this the RACISM that you want AMERICANS to have!!! I think he should be FIRED!!!."

Minutes later Pettiford turned up the pressure and posted on the school's Facebook page, "I hope this matter is being taken seriously .... because I think that the TV stations might find this newsworthy," according to the complaint.

The principal allegedly went into damage control mode. She had the school's computer technician delete Gonzalez's comment from the Huffington Post Facebook page, and told Gonzalez to make his Facebook page private to prevent unwanted access.

But Pettiford would not go away.

"Mr. Pettiford called Rodriguez at approximately 9:30 a.m. Plaintiff answered the phone since he was the secretary," the complaint states. "Mr. Pettiford questioned whether plaintiff was the one who posted the caption on the Huffington Post Facebook page, and plaintiff told him yes. Plaintiff then stated 'I am sorry if the comment offended you.' Mr. Pettiford told plaintiff, 'It may be deleted but not forgotten.'"

Pettiford asked to speak with the principal and continued to post comments on the school's Facebook page stating that Gonzalez should be fired.

Also that morning, Gonzalez says, a man named Todd Hollis called the school and spoke with its assistant principal about the post.

"Coincidentally, Mr. Hollis is also African American and from the same area in Pennsylvania as Mr. Pettiford. Mr. Hollis identified himself as an attorney," Gonzalez says in the complaint.

Despite the efforts to erase Gonzalez's comment from cyberspace, Pettiford continued to call the school and send it messages urging the principal to fire Gonzalez.

On Sept. 7, 2012, less than two weeks after Gonzalez posted the comment, school superintendent Steve Flores placed him on administrative leave. Flores fired Gonzalez two weeks later.

Gonzalez says he filed a grievance in hope of getting his job back, but it got nowhere.

Gonzalez seeks $2 million in damages for conspiracy, civil rights violations and violations of the First Amendment and due process violations, with an emphasis on the First Amendment claims.

"Plaintiff's speech was and is protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it touched 'upon a matter of public concern,' i.e. race," the complaint states.

He is represented by Star Jones of Brownsville.

Harlingen school district spokesman Shane Strubhart issued the following statement: "Mr. Gonzalez is no longer an employee at the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District and the allegations raised in the filed lawsuit are unfounded. As this matter involves litigation and personnel matters, our school district cannot and will not comment further."

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