Pro-Palestine activist Bassem Tamimi, center, has been the focus of an ongoing legal dispute over records at the Ithaca City School District. Photo courtesy of Tamimi's Facebook page

ITHACA, N.Y. — A judge has told the Ithaca City School District to explain why it shouldn’t be forced to disclose records related to a controversial guest speaker hosted at a local elementary school this fall.

[do_widget id= text-55 ]

In September, pro-Palestine activist Bassem Tamimi spoke to a classroom of Third Grade students at the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in Ithaca.

The talk generated significant controversy and national press after it was covered by Legal Insurrection, the blog of Cornell law professor William Jacobson. Superintendent Luvelle Brown later apologized, calling the event a mistake and saying the school “sincerely regret(s)” that Tamimi spoke to the children.

Pro-Palestine activist Bassem Tamimi, center, has been the focus of an ongoing legal dispute over records at the Ithaca City School District. Photo courtesy of Tamimi’s Facebook page
Pro-Palestine activist Bassem Tamimi, center, has been the focus of an ongoing legal dispute over records at the Ithaca City School District. Photo courtesy of Tamimi’s Facebook page

Why are the courts now involved?

After the event, Prof. Jacobson filed a Freedom of Information Law request to find out more about how and why Tamimi was brought to speak at the elementary school.

That request turned up some documents, many of which were redacted or incomplete, according to paperwork filed by Jacobson in Tompkins County Court and published on Legal Insurrection.

Jacobson appealed to the court for relief, saying that the school would be breaking the state’s open records law if it didn’t fully comply with his request.

“ICSD must do whatever it lawfully is able to do, including disciplinary action against defiant employees if necessary, in order to comply with FOIL,” Jacobson wrote in his Dec. 8 appeal.

Judge intervenes with order to ICSD

On Dec. 9, Judge Phillip Rumsey intervened and issued an “order to show cause” — in other words, calling on ICSD to demonstrate why the court shouldn’t take a certain course of action. Rumsey’s order appears to have sided with Prof. Jacobson almost entirely.

Without a sufficient explanation from ICSD, the judge said, the school district and Ithaca Teachers’ Union would be “enjoined and prohibited from destroying, deleting, damaging or secreting any and all records, including but not limited to records contained on personal electronic devices.”

Citing paperwork filed by Jacobson, the judge also told the teachers’ association to “cease and desist from interfering in ICSD’s compliance with this order,” according to the Dec. 9 order.

Separate conflict emerges between teachers’ union, school district over same records

One of the sub-plots in the fight between Jacobson and ICSD is an evolving disagreement between ICSD and its teachers’ union over the same event.

In December, Prof. Jacobson reported that the school district was blaming the Ithaca Teachers’ Union for a lack of responsive records to the open records request about Tamimi.

Jacobson reported receiving the following message from ICSD:

“In response, the Ithaca Teachers Association (ITA) President informed us that the ITA considers any records that were sent or received by ITA members via their personal e-mail accounts and/or personal devices, to be personal in nature. Therefore, the ITA President has informed us that to the extent any such records exist, they will not be furnished by ITA members.”

But in a recent court filing, Adam Piasecki, president of the Ithaca Teacher’s Association, says that the ITA has been fully compliant with the records request and has made no attempt to interfere with Jacobson’s FOIL.

“It continues to be my understanding that — based on my conversations with certain unit members — any and all agency records even those stored on personal communication devices were turned over to the district,” Piasecki says.

“I have never instructed unit members not to comply with the District’s request for responsive documents.”

Similar documents have been filed in court by lawyers representing the teachers’ union.

“The association has not threatened to interfere, procured the interference, or actually interfered with, (Jacobson’s) rights under FOIL,” writes Richard Casagrande, the attorney for the teachers’ union, in a Jan. 5 filing.

Why is there so much squabbling over 1 speaker?

What explains all this legal squabbling? Underlying the disagreement are highly contradictory views about Baseem Tamimi, the pro-Palestinian activist.

Jacobson, the Cornell law professor, has described Tamimi this way:

“Tamimi is best known for his use of children, including his own, for media purposes. The game goes like this: Tamimi’s children and other children from the village of Nabi Saleh are encouraged to confront Israeli soldiers in the hope of provoking a reaction. The children are surrounded by a phalanx of photographers and videographers waiting for the viral moment when the Israeli soldier reacts, which then is fed to the media through the Tamimi media operation and international activists who often participate.

Supporters of Tamimi strongly disagree with this characterization, noting that Tamimi has been recognized by the United Nations as a “human rights defender” who was also declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 2012.

Here’s how Jewish Voices for Peace explained Tamimi’s value to the students in a September blog post:

“Grounded in an explicit commitment to understanding all cultures, BJM Elementary has brought human rights defenders with international and local perspectives into the classroom. Last year students read the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, who defended girls’ right to an education in Pakistan, and met with activists in the We Are Seneca Lake organization, who are defending the human right to clean water in New York State.”

In a statement in response to the backlash to Mr. Tamimi’s presentation, BJM Elementary said, “In keeping with the 3rd grade curriculum standard to study human rights, as well as the ICSD ongoing efforts to bring authenticity and local relevance to our studies, human rights activists were brought into the classroom.” The statement continued “The children took away from this experience several messages”, including “I can be an ambassador for peace.” and “ You can make friends across borders and that is a good thing.”

[do_widget id= text-61 ]

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.