Harlingen, Tex. (CBS HOUSTON) — A former elementary school secretary says his First Amendment rights were violated when he was unfairly fired after a racist Facebook post about President Barack Obama was brought to the school principal’s attention by an African-American Pennsylvania man angered by his online caption.
The free speech lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District violated Abel Gonzalez’s First Amendment rights by firing him over his “caption contest” post to a photo of Obama on the Huffington Post Facebook page in August 2012, Courthouse News reports.
“On Saturday, August 25, 2012 at 9:08 a.m., plaintiff was at home on his own personal computer, when plaintiff received an e-mail from the Huffington Post’s Facebook page,” the complaint states. “The Facebook page had a picture of a little girl chasing President Obama in the Oval Office and beneath the picture were the words, ‘Caption this.’ Plaintiff wrote ‘Run N***** Run.'”
Gonzalez’s complaint states that he went about his usual business for the next five days, and that no one in his place of employment said one word about the Facebook post, and to his knowledge, no one even knew he had responded to the Huffington Post caption contest email.
But on Aug. 31, Mr. C. Orlando Pettiford clicked on Gonzalez’s Facebook profile and discovered that he was the school secretary at Dr. Rodgriguez Elementary in Harlingen, Texas.
“Mr. Pettiford then reposted plaintiff’s posting from the Huffington Post Facebook page to Dr. Rodriguez Elementary’s Facebook page. It is important to note that Mr. Pettiford is an African-American from Pennsylvania,” the complaint states, according to Courthouse News.
Gonzalez says that school principal Tracy Gonzalez received notice of Pettiford’s reposting of the captioned photo to the school’s Facebook page, on which Pettiford had written his own comment:
“Click on the above picture … then read the COMMENT made by one of your directors!!! ABEL GONZALEZ!!! Is this what you are teaching your students? Is this the RACISM that you want AMERICANS to have!!! I think he should be FIRED!!!.”
Within minutes of the Obama photo repost, Pettiford then posted on the school’s Facebook page,” I hope this matter is being taken seriously … because I think that the TV stations might find this newsworthy,” according to the complaint.
Principal Gonzalez and former secretary Abel Gonzalez took immediate actions to delete the comment from the Huffington Post Facebook page and also set Abel Gonzalez’s profile to private, preventing further unwanted public access.
But Pettiford increased the intensity of his complaints and began calling the school.
“Mr. Pettiford called Rodriguez at approximately 9:30 a.m. Plaintiff answered the phone since he was the secretary,” the complaint states, Courthouse News reports. “Mr. Pettiford questioned whether plaintiff was the one who posted the caption on the Huffington Post Facebook page, and plaintiff told him yes. Plaintiff then stated ‘I am sorry if the comment offended you.’ Mr. Pettiford told plaintiff, ‘It may be deleted but not forgotten.'”
Pettiford requested to speak with Principal Gonzalez, while he continued to post comments to the school’s Facebook page calling for secretary Abel Gonzalez to be fired.
By 10 a.m. of the same day, assistant principal Beulah Rangel received a phone call from Todd Hollis, regarding Abel Gonzalez’s Obama photo post. The complaint states that, “Coincidentally, Mr. Hollis is also African Americand and from the same area in Pennsylvania as Mr. Pettiford. Mr. Hollis identified himself as an attorney.”
Following a series of additional posts to the school’s Facebook page and numerous more calls, school Superintendent Steve Flores placed Abel Gonzalez on administrative leave on Sept. 7, 2012. Flores fired Gonzalez two weeks later.
Gonzalez says that he filed a series of unsuccessful grievances and has been “blackballed” from 150 other school district jobs to which he has applied since. He had worked for the school district for 12 years prior to the incident.
Filing in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Brownsville Division, Gonzalez is seeking $2 million in damages for conspiracy, civil rights violations and violations of the First Amendment and due process violations, emphasizing First Amendment claims, Courthouse News service reports.
Harlingen school district spokesman Shane Strubhart issued the following statement to Courthouse News: “Mr. Gonzalez is no longer an employee at the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District and the allegations raised in the filed lawsuit are unfounded. As this matter involves litigation and personnel matters, our school district cannot and will not comment further.”