MCPS Officials Violated Teachers' Free Speech On Gaza, Lawsuit Says

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MD — Three Montgomery County teachers who were suspended for criticizing Israel’s conduct in Gaza and expressing support for Palestinians have filed a federal lawsuit against the county Board of Education and county school officials.

In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, the three teachers are asking Montgomery County Public Schools to end their suspensions and reinstate them to their jobs, issue public apologies for their treatment, and allow them and other MCPS staff to advocate on behalf of Palestinians and other marginalized people.

The teachers also are seeking payment for all back pay and lost benefits; payment for non-economic damages, including emotional harm; punitive damages; and an award of attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses of all litigation.

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The three MCPS teachers — Hajur El-Haggan, Anike Robinson, and Angela Wolf — were suspended and investigated for expressing support for Palestinians during Israel’s ongoing bombardment in Gaza. The International Court of Justice ruled last month that it is “plausible” that Israel has committed acts that violate the Genocide Convention.

Through their attorneys at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the teachers filed the lawsuit, challenging their suspension on First Amendment grounds. The lawsuit comes after CAIR filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December against the Montgomery County and the county’s Board of Education on behalf of El-Haggan.

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At a news conference in Baltimore on Thursday, CAIR attorney Rawda Fawaz said the three teachers have been punished for their viewpoints and the conduct of MCPS is a “textbook violation of the First Amendment.”

“The actions by the Board and by MCPS officials have been thinly veiled attempts to accomplish one mission: removing teachers who express support for the Palestinian people from the classroom,” Fawaz said. “This is a despicable bid to silence opinions they don’t agree with, control employees’ personal expression, and smear the reputations of any who dares advocate for basic rights and dignity for Palestinians.”

MCPS had not responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit when this article was published.

Robinson and Wolf were suspended for using their personal social media to criticize Israel for killing thousands of civilians in Gaza. El-Haggan was suspended for using the phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” in her internal work email signature.

“MCPS officials did not suspend Plaintiffs because of how they expressed their views,” the lawsuit says. “Rather, Defendants suspended these three teachers because of their views.”

Whether online or in school, MCPS teachers have long been allowed to express their views on a range of public topics — from racial justice to the war in Ukraine — as the First Amendment requires, according to the lawsuit.

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But through these suspensions, the Board of Education and MCPS “are pursuing an illegal, Israel-specific, viewpoint-suppression policy it has not adopted for any other matter of public concern,” the lawsuit says.

At the news conference, Wolf, a teacher at Takoma Park Middle School, said she has used social media to express her views on a variety of issues for many years, including using her Facebook page to spread the word about confronting white supremacists and Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 for the Unite the Right rally.

Wolf was not punished or suspended by MCPS for using her personal social media to speak out against white supremacists or for other social justice issues. It was not until she used her Facebook page to criticize the conduct of a foreign government — Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza — that MCPS decided to suspend her.

READ ALSO: CASA In Crosshairs Of Montgomery Co. Leaders After Criticizing Israel

A letter was sent out to the school community about Wolf’s suspension that “maligned my character … because of one opinion,” Wolf said, referring to her criticism of Israel’s destruction of Gaza.

CAIR said it is not aware of any teachers who have been suspended in Montgomery County for criticizing Palestinians or expressing support for Israel’s policies since Palestinian militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

“Like many people of conscience, Hajur El-Haggan, Anike Robinson, and Angela Wolf have expressed their views — to their friends, families, and communities — about Palestine, Israel, and the violence in Gaza and the West Bank,” the lawsuit says. “But unlike some of their colleagues who express support for Israel or justify violence against Palestinians, MCPS officials removed the teachers from their classrooms.”

On Oct. 13, following the start of intense bombardment of civilians in Gaza, El-Haggan started wearing shirts or sweatshirts with a variety of slogans, including “Free Gaza” and “Free Palestine.”

Like El-Haggan, other MCPS employees have expressed opinions about various political and social matters, such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ Pride and Ukraine.

“Teachers wore pins and clothing that expressed their views. Indeed, Ms. El-Haggan herself also had regularly worn clothing and pins which expressed her support for other social causes, such as BLM,” the lawsuit says.

The quote — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — that El-Haggan added to her email signature is for email that county staff use to communicate internally with each other. It was not the email she used to communicate with students or parents, and no student or parent ever saw this email signature, according to the lawsuit.

Other MCPS teachers also include slogans and quotes related to political and social causes in their email signatures. One teacher had the slogan “Black Lives Matter” in her email signature. Another shared that they were a “Rainbow Alliance Sponsor” of the LGBTQ club. Several teachers had links to articles about using pronouns in signatures, the lawsuit says.

“By singling out Ms. El-Haggan, an Arab Muslim woman, for her email signature and placing her on leave, MCPS, MCBOE, and all involved administrators have both violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and engaged in viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment,” the lawsuit says.

Elsewhere in Maryland, CAIR has filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a teacher at North County High School in Anne Arundel County who sent an email opposing the county’s resources and curriculum surrounding Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

In response to the teacher’s request for the school to use different language that more accurately describes the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, Anne Arundel Public Schools informed the teacher that she was under investigation for her conduct.

As for the Montgomery County teachers, all three remain suspended.


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