ACLU Wins Settlement for New Mexico Teachers Punished for Posting Anti-War Materials

November 14, 2003 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico today announced the settlement of a civil rights lawsuit against the Albuquerque Public Schools for disciplinary actions taken against teachers and a counselor for posting materials related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

""We couldn't have hoped for a better outcome,"" said Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Mexico. ""The teachers' rights and records were restored and the school has amended its policies to ensure that employees are not suspended for exercising their freedom of speech.""

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Carmelita Roybal and Allen Cooper, and counselor Ken Tabish last April in New Mexico Federal District Court, claiming violations of their rights to free speech. The settlement agreement requires Albuquerque Public Schools to restore their pay, remove letters of reprimand from their files, and to pay plaintiffs' attorneys fees and costs.

The controversy surrounding the lawsuit also caused the school system to change its policies to require mediation before the suspension of employees for violating the ""controversial issues"" policy.

Roybal, Cooper, and Tabish were each suspended in March 2003 over anti-war literature they had posted in their classrooms and office for several months preceding the start of the Iraq war on March 19. Each was docked two days= pay. Only after the school received anonymous complaints did administrators ask that the materials be removed. Roybal, Cooper, and Tabish refused to comply. Tuoni complied with the instruction to remove a flyer that advertised a peace rally only in order to avoid suspension.

Roybal, a teacher at Rio Grande High School, was suspended on March 10 when she refused to remove a ""No War Against Iraq"" poster from her classroom. The poster had been in her classroom for at least two months without incident, until the principal received an anonymous hand-written note.

On March 19, Tabish, a counselor at Albuquerque High School, was instructed to remove his anti-war materials, including a copy of a speech by Senator Robert Byrd to Congress. He responded, AI am a person of peace, and in good conscience, I cannot take them down."" As a result he was put on administrative leave. As with Roybal, the school had received an anonymous complaint. The only comments Tabish ever heard about his materials were from two students who were for the Iraq war; Tabish encouraged those students to express their views.

Cooper was suspended on March 31 from his teaching position at Highland High School because he declined to remove an anti-war leaflet and student-created posters about the war. In meetings with Cooper and Roybal, Defendant Ronald Williams, then the Staff Director of the school system's Human Resources Department and now retired, compared the anti-war materials to a ""swastika.""

Roybal, Cooper, and Tabish were charged with violating the school's ""controversial issues"" policy which states: ""The teacher will serve as an impartial moderator and will not attempt, directly or indirectly, to limit or control the opinion of pupils on controversial issues.""

""The ACLU has no objections to the school's policy,"" said Jane Gagne, a cooperating attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico. ""We just disagreed with the way in which the policy was implemented. The employees did not seek in any way to limit or control students= opinions; they just responded appropriately to students' questions about the possibility of the war.""

""Any expectation that our educators should be silent about such a politically and culturally important issue is an affront to our democracy and to our all-important constitutional right to free speech,"" Gagne added.

""Each of our clients took a courageous stand on an issue of critical importance, and in the process became educators of more than just students.""

As a result of the suspensions, Albuquerque Public School teachers have formed an organization called the Alliance for Academic Freedom, dedicated to continuing the work to protect teachers' free speech rights.

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