The days when Teaneck was an example of how different ethnic and religious groups could live together if not in radical acceptance than at least in hard-earned tolerance — the days when it could point to having the first voluntarily integrated school system — are over.
It’s possible that the township’s October board of education meeting was the final shovelful of dirt thudding onto the grave of that lovely, delicate, abstract ideal.
Now, the board is dealing with a letter from the FIRE Foundation accusing it of violating town residents’ First Amendment rights by allowing some of them to speak while cutting others off, seemingly in response to its members’ feelings about the contents of those residents’ comments.
It’s not as if the board has much to fear immediately from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. While the letter it sent to the school board’s attorney is a deeply researched, meticulously organized, carefully argued document that could be used as a brief, the organization does not have standing to pursue a case, and it’s unlikely that it has the funding necessary.
But it’s a warning shot from an organization concerned with the First Amendment’s freedom of speech, not with the content of that speech.
So, to go back, what were those permitted, curtailed, controversial speeches advocating or denying? And what’s the backstory that led to the contentious meeting?
Although some of the tensions fueling the meeting are decades old, the proximate cause of this outbreak is the situation in Israel and Gaza, and the trigger seems to have been the letter that the township’s school superintendent, Dr. Andre Spencer, wrote about it.
“In the midst of the latest incidents in the cycle of violence in the Middle East, we recognize the fear, grief, and pain that our community is experiencing,” he wrote. “Therefore, we want to express a strong sense of compassion for our communities. The unfortunate situation in the Middle East has far-reaching implications on many of our community members, and for this reason, we want to let our families know that Teaneck Public Schools stands ready to support.”
The letter was strong on sympathy but short on specifics; if a reader didn’t know what had happened before reading it, that reader would have been none the wiser after completing it.
That angered many members of the township’s large Jewish community, who feel that Hamas’s incursion into Israel, and the brutality of the torture, rape, kidnapping, and murder that followed are not merely the latest incident in a “cycle of violence” but an escalation of savagery.
Keith Kaplan of Teaneck is a community activist, a member of the town council from 2016 to 2022, a law clerk with many years of experience working with legal documents, and a husband and father whose many skills do not include keeping quiet in the face of what he sees as injustice.
The school board meeting was crowded with parents and other community members who knew that by law, they were going to have a chance to speak. “The state law is clear,” Mr. Kaplan said. “A meeting of a town council or board of education must set aside a portion of the meeting for any member of the public to speak on any matter they feel is related. They have to be allowed to speak.”
Many people spoke at the meeting. Many of them were Teaneck High School students; many of the young women, identifiable as Muslim by their headscarves, talked about what they called the brutality of Israel’s attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. They were not cut off. But the parents who talked about Hamas’s attack were stopped; they were told that their remarks were inappropriate. They were told that there were children in the room, who should be shielded from such information.
As FIRE put it in its coverage of the meeting:
“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.’”
Ms. Fisher later responded to an email asking for a comment by writing “I hope for the sake of the article you have reviewed the board meeting in its entirety.” She did not respond to a later email that had a list of questions.
Relations between Mr. Kaplan and Ms. Fisher are frosty, to understate. The board of education’s vice president responded to a text Mr. Kaplan sent her with these words: “Lose my number pencil dick.”
Mr. Kaplan spoke at the meeting. He described the Hamas attacks and was asked and then told to stop, and eventually his microphone was cut off. Eventually, because there were theatrics involved; he moved away from the microphone and held his wrists out for the police officers who were present to handcuff him. They did not. “I was hamming it up,” he said.
“And then they sent me a cease-and-desist letter, saying that I spoke on a topic not related to the board’s mission, and that I created an actionable risk of harm, and that I threatened children,” Mr. Kaplan said. “They said that if I continued to act in that way, I may be barred from future meetings.”
That’s when he wrote to FIRE.
Joseph Kaplan, who is not related to Keith Kaplan, is a retired lawyer who has lived in Teaneck for decades; he’s also a columnist for this newspaper.
He thinks that FIRE makes a strong case. “Sometimes advocacy organizations have very strong positions on substantive issues, and they argue those substantive positions strongly,” he said. “They are simply an advocate for their client.
“That’s true in this case too, but in this case the client is free speech. FIRE has no dog in the fight about Israel, Hamas, Gaza, or the Palestinians. They are looking at what happened in pure free speech terms.
“They made a terrific argument, saying ‘Put the substance aside. Did the board violate people’s free speech rights under the First Amendment?’ And they are saying that yes, it did.
“I’m pretty knowledgeable in constitutional law, and their argument sounded strong. It doesn’t seem to me that they’re stretching cases, and they argued in a lawyerly tone. I would have been proud to have signed that letter.”
The letter from FIRE asks the board of education to respond by December 11. “This is something that a lawyer would do before bringing a lawsuit,” Joseph Kaplan continued. “The letter says that we’d be happy to sit with you and meet with you about working on your standards. These are things you do if you’re thinking about suing.”
It’s a Jewish approach as well, he added. “If you attack a city, you have to leave an exit. You have to give people a way out, so that you don’t have to kill them.”
FIRE has no standing to sue on its own — and that doesn’t go anywhere near the issue of financial resources, something he knows nothing about in this case, Mr. Kaplan said — but “the people who were there and were cut off most likely would have standing.” And FIRE’s letter lays out the case so well that any lawyer taking it on — perhaps pro bono, Mr. Kaplan suggested — would have a good, solid, well-researched foundation on which to build a case.
It’s not clear where any of this is going. Jewish parents and students in Teaneck report feeling unsafe at school. Buried hostilities have been unearthed, and they’re being fanned with oxygen so they’re continuing to grow. But it seems that if civility is an early casualty of this war, First Amendment rights shouldn’t follow them into the grave.