ACLU Defends Navajo Advocate's Right to Criticize School District

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
August 19, 2004 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE–The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico announced today that it is defending a Navajo man who is being sued by the Central Consolidated School District for defamation over an op-ed he wrote criticizing the district’s bilingual education policies.

School district superintendent Linda Besett filed the lawsuit against Harry Descheenie, volunteer president of the district’s Indian Education Committee, and The Daily Times after his October 22, 2003 opinion piece criticized the district for its failure to comply with federal, state and Navajo Nation requirements that schools assist teaching Navajo children the Navajo language.

“Besett’s lawsuit has no merit. It appears designed for one purpose only: to stop people like Harry Descheenie from criticizing Besett and the school district,” said ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson. “Frankly, I’m shocked that a high ranking school official would initiate such obvious chicanery.”

ACLU of New Mexico Co-Legal Director Jane Gagne filed a motion in federal court on Wednesday to dismiss Besett’s lawsuit for failure to meet requirements under First Amendment law for defamation claims by public officials in response to statements about matters of public concern. The motion asks the court to dismiss the lawsuit “with prejudice.”

“The bedrock of the First Amendment is the right to criticize public officials,” Gagne said. “Nothing in Descheenie’s article is defamatory. The article isn’t even directed at the superintendent, but at the district as a governmental entity. The First Amendment prohibits exactly the kind of lawsuit this is: back-door official censorship. Besett has no legitimate basis for her claim.”

The lawsuit was filed as part of an ongoing case filed in October 2003 against Besett and other school district officials. The original lawsuit charges that the school district retaliated against former and current employees for criticizing the district’s lack of commitment to the Navajo bilingual program, its noncompliance with Navajo education requirements and its use of Navajo education program funds.

“This case is not an abstract issue for Harry Descheenie,” said Gagne. “The concept of free speech is particularly important for him, in more ways than one. When he was 6 years old, he was sent to a mission school until he was 17. He spoke only Navajo, but over the years, the language was literally beaten out of him. Today, as an adult with a child in the Central school district, the preservation of the Navajo culture and language for Navajo children is an issue that hits very close to home. The ACLU is proud to help make sure that he and others will feel free to attain that goal.”

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