The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (“FIRE”) calls on the Board to reform its policies and practices to comply with its constitutional obligations.
“When the Board of Education Violated My Civil Rights, I Chose to Fight Fisher with F.I.R.E.” – Keith Kaplan
The Board of Education is bound by the First Amendment
Lest anyone thinks that the standpoint the board based their vague and unequally applied rules has any standing, I’d urge you to read Justice Robert Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)
In the opinion, the Court says:
“The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures — Boards of Education not excepted.”
“Such Boards are numerous, and their territorial jurisdiction often small. But small and local authority may feel less sense of responsibility to the Constitution, and agencies of publicity may be less vigilant in calling it to account.”
“There are village tyrants, as well as village Hampdens, but none who acts under color of law is beyond reach of the Constitution.”
“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”
and my favorite line from any opinion:
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
The Superintendent’s Letter:
On October 11, Teaneck School’s Superintendent Dr. Andre D. Spencer sent out a letter to parents in the wake of the most horrific attack on the Jewish people in a single day since the Holocaust.
In that letter, Dr. Spencer referred to the attacks perpetrated by Hamas as “the latest incidents in the cycle of violence in the Middle East” and “[t]he unfortunate situation in the Middle East”.
In the days following, I personally reached out to Dr. Spencer and we spoke via telephone for a while about the reasons the letter was so problematic to many residents, including those who had children in the district. I even went as far as to prepare language that Dr. Spencer might be able to use1 to indicate that he understood the Jewish community’s anguish and was being responsive to those in his care.
Subsequently, parents in the township organized a Change.org petition, entitled: “Teaneck Public Schools: Revise Your Statement on Terrorism in Israel“, which urged the Superintendent to revisit his remarks. The letter was signed by 3,071 individuals.
On October 17th, the Township Council unanimously passed Resolution 272-2023 “Denouncing the Terrorist Group Hamas and Supporting the State of Israel”.
Residents reach out to BOE and receive unequal treatment
The next day, residents came to address the Board of Education and Superintendent Spencer at the regular board meeting of October 18th [video link to meeting].
FIRE: The Teaneck Board of Education’s Restrictions on Public Comment Violate the First Amendment
At the 10/18 BOE meeting, Board Vice President Victoria Fisher regularly cut off speakers who mentioned atrocities committed by Hamas against Israel, but did not do so for those making comments in the opposite direction. After seeing at least six of these incidents happen (watch e.g. at time indexes: 16:55, 50:16, 54:35 and 1:21:57), I went to the microphone and spoke.
You can watch me speaking at time reference 1:49:57.
Several residents were cut off from speaking based on vague notions that dangerous actions, described in detail were too much for High School students in attendance, to hear.
The Court in Cohen v. CA dealt with the issue of using alternative words, stating:
“Additionally, we cannot overlook the fact, because it is well illustrated by the episode involved here, that much linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which, practically speaking, may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated. Indeed, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter has said,
“[o]ne of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures — and that means not only informed and responsible criticism, but the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation.” Baumgartner v. United States, 322 U. S. 665, 322 U. S. 673-674 (1944).
Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971)
I was cut off from speaking no less than 3 times, due solely to the words I spoke to the board. This was an egregious violation of the First Amendment, as well as State Law (N.J. STAT. § 10:4-12(a) — OPMA) and Board Policy.
“Several parents and community members used the public comment period to criticize Spencer for not explicitly and forcefully condemning the attack. But when they described Hamas’s actions to support that criticism, the board repeatedly shut them down. The board took particular exception to commenters’ “graphic” descriptions of the attack and repeatedly told speakers to keep in mind that children were in the audience.
Yet when other commenters used their time to emphasize the plight of Palestinians and used similarly “graphic” language, the board allowed them to continue.”
– Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression
Watch the board selectively stop certain points of view:
“For example, when one speaker said it’s possible to unequivocally condemn Hamas’s actions without taking a side in the conflict “unless of course you’re trying to appease people who actually think that the raping and murdering and pillaging of the community is appropriate,” Board Vice President Victoria Fisher immediately cut him off. In contrast, the board remained silent when another commenter said, “These people talking about raping and piling bodies on top of each other, that happened in the Holocaust. And if they’re having PTSD for what they’re doing to the Muslim community in Palestine, that’s something they need to seek mental health counseling for.”
When a speaker rhetorically asked how others would feel if “Indigenous people in our country … pulled your kids out of their beds and then shot you in front of them,” Fisher disapprovingly interrupted. But the board allowed someone else to freely comment that Israel’s “dehumanizing and genocidal actions” and the “propaganda surrounding them have spread all the way to us, where kids are stabbed 26 times just for being Palestinian.”
The board also repeatedly warned speakers discussing the Hamas attack not to repeat details or facts already “on the record.” Yet several pro-Palestinian speakers repeated details mentioned by previous commenters without receiving such warnings or admonitions.”
– Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression
Cease and Desist
At the next meeting, the Board voted in closed session to have the Counsel for the District send a letter to “Cease and Desist” regarding my “conduct” to the board. In this revision of history, the attorneys stated:
“The Board takes no position with respect to the subject matter of your comments”
This is clearly belied by the facts, as anyone can see on the recorded Board meeting.
Luckily, there are groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), whose mission is “to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty.”
FIRE lays out exactly where the Board VP, Victoria Fisher repeatedly violated the civil rights of parents and other members of our community. The letter, which is posted in full below with links to all relative documents and cases, requests a response by December 11th. I will update you whenever responses come through.2023-11-27_FIRE Letter to Teaneck Public Schools Board of Education, November 27, 2023
Due to a significant number of emails received by the Teaneck Board of Education, I also notified Board President Sebastian Rodriguez and Vice President Victoria Fisher separately, since they were cc’d on the communication to me. I will post any further responses I receive below.
Response from Teaneck Board of Education Vice President Victoria Fisher:
Response from Teaneck Board of Education President Sebastian Rodriguez:
- The language I gave Dr. Spencer was based on a letter prepared by the President of Northwestern University.
Sadly, Dr. Spencer did not send this and chose not to revise his communications. You can find my suggested wording here (note these are NOT words created by Dr. Spencer):
Last week, I sent out a letter outlining services our community can provide to our scholars, staff, and families. In that communication, some language has been seen by members of our community to suggest that I believe that the Teaneck Public School District as an entity does not condemn the atrocities that were committed. That cannot be further from the truth and I write again to share my thoughts about our values and our response to atrocities. There is no one who believes we should not be governed by a set of values… that everything is relative. Let me be very clear — we are absolutely guided by a set of shared values and principles. Among the values that we all share and embrace both individually and collectively are commitments to open discourse, diversity, equity, inclusion, and an abhorrence of antisemitism and racism. The abhorrent and horrific actions of Hamas last Saturday are clearly antithetical to Teaneck’s and our scholars’ values — as well as my own. Wherever one finds themselves on greater issues regarding the conflict, our shared humanity should lead us all to condemn these barbaric acts. One more value that I know we share in Teaneck is care and compassion for one another. Our scholars, our faculty, our staff, and our entire community are in tremendous pain. This is a moment for us to pull together, support one another, and seek common ground. I have been in communication with our leaders. We are coordinating our resources. No one should think we need to agree with each other about divisive issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we must have empathy for each other and strive to build understanding. We condemn the terror visited on our community. We share our compassion and stand with all innocent people in Israel and Gaza at this time.