A federal judge Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former New York City public high school teacher who claimed she was fired for teaching a unit about five men wrongly convicted in the 1989 gang rape of a Central Park jogger.
U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl ruled that Jeena Lee-Walker’s speech, as a public employee, was not protected by the First Amendment when she taught lessons about a group of Hispanic and black men, known as the Central Park Five, who were found guilty — and later exonerated — in the rape of a 28-year-old investment banker.
Lee-Walker, who worked at the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry in Manhattan, alleged that an administrator who observed her ninth-grade class told her to be "more balanced" in her discussion of the case because it might "rile up" black students, according to her lawsuit.
The goal of the unit, her lawsuit said, was to get students to "re-examine old assumptions and to challenge orthodoxy" while maintaining a "balanced view of the facts."
Lee-Walker received increasingly negative performance reviews, which she said were retaliatory and led to her firing last May, court papers alleged.
“We think the case law supports our position that free speech cases in the educational context are different than other public employee speech cases because we run the risk of teachers losing their jobs because someone disagrees with them politically.”
Lee-Walker’s attorneys had argued that, as an educator, she enjoyed academic freedom, and that private conversations with administrators, which they said focused on "philosophical disagreements" about public reaction to the case, were protected political speech under the First Amendment, according to court documents.
Koeltl, however, sided with the city, which maintained Lee-Walker should not be afforded those protections since she was carrying out her official duties.
“The claims in this suit had no merit,” a spokesman for the city Law Department told NBC News. “We’re pleased the judge agreed.”
Lee-Walker’s attorney, Stephen Bergstein, told NBC News in a statement that they were disappointed with the ruling and are considering an appeal.
“We think the case law supports our position that free speech cases in the educational context are different than other public employee speech cases because we run the risk of teachers losing their jobs because someone disagrees with them politically,” Bergstein said in an email.
Lee-Walker’s lawsuit, filed in January, drew attention from a number of groups, including 18 Million Rising (18MR), founded in 2012 to politically mobilize Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities through social media and technology.
18MR had launched an online petition in support of Lee-Walker, which included links to news stories of other teachers of color allegedly fired for teaching units on social justice.
The confession of an inmate whose DNA matched that taken from the crime scene led to the exoneration of the Central Park Five in 2002.
In 2014, the city settled a federal lawsuit with the men — Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wise — paying out a total of $40 million.