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A decade ago, black Piscataway, N.J., schoolteacher Debra Williams endured a dubious national renown as the beneficiary of an affirmative action policy that sacrificed an equally qualified white teacher to preserve racial diversity. The reverse-discrimination case, Sharon Taxman v. Board of Education, 91 F.3d 1547 (1996), set a precedent among the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the limits of affirmative action. It was eventually settled, but Williams was thenceforth known as the teacher who suffered by comparison. The stigma was reinforced by an Associated Press report that quoted her using poor grammar to express her reaction to the settlement. So Williams sued the AP and its reporter for defamation, claiming loss of reputation. A trial judge found her to be a limited-purpose public figure given the notoriety of the case, thus requiring proof of actual malice. But the judge denied the AP’s motion for summary judgment, finding genuine issues of fact in dispute. On July 13, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court went a step further and dismissed the entire suit, finding Williams had proffered no substantial evidence of actual malice on the part of AP reporter Amy Westfeldt or the news agency’s former bureau chief, Mark Mittelstadt. Nothing in the record, the judges said, is enough to “raise even a suspicion concerning Westfeldt’s honesty in claiming that the published statements were made by plaintiff. There is not a scintilla of evidence that Westfeldt intended either to fabricate the quotation itself or falsely employ ungrammatical syntax in the quoted statement,” wrote the panel in Williams v. Associated Press, A-2840-00. Williams had claimed that she had an advanced degree, which made her more qualified than Taxman for the job. Westfeldt, who had been reporting on Taxman’s case, went to Piscataway High School on Nov. 21, 1997, after the settlement was announced to interview those involved in the case. She met Williams in the hallway and asked her for her reaction to the settlement. Westfeldt quoted Williams as saying: “You don’t get nothing in this world for having an advanced degree. You don’t get nothing but a slap in the face.” That quote appeared in a story Westfeldt wrote that day and formed the basis for Williams’ libel suit. She alleged that as a result of the story, her reputation was severely damaged and that she suffered emotional distress because of disparaging letters she received attacking her qualifications and grammar. But in their ruling, Appellate Division Judges John Keefe, Naomi Eichen and Isaiah Steinberg said that the quote had to be viewed as more than just a mere statement. A reasonable person reading it could conclude that she meant, “You don’t get anything in this world for having an advanced degree. You don’t get anything but a slap in the face.” “On the other hand,” the judges said, “a possible secondary meaning to the challenged quotation could be, ‘I’m not receiving proper credit for my master’s degree, but I’m not professional enough to speak properly about it.’ “The Board, through its retention of Williams based on her race, rather than her master’s degree, created a situation in which Williams’ conduct would be heavily scrutinized,” they said. “Given the racial overtones in this situation, the statement attributed to Williams containing ungrammatical syntax could allow a reasonable reader to conclude that Williams was uneducated or not as qualified as she claimed. “Indeed, the correspondence she received did place her in this negative light. That being so, we believed the challenged statement was capable of defamatory meaning.” But because of Williams’ status as a limited-purpose public figure, she must produce “substantial evidence” of actual malice in order to survive a summary judgment motion, they wrote, citing Maressa v. New Jersey Monthly, 89 N.J. 176 (1982). Williams’ attorney, Red Bank sole practitioner Stafford Thompson, declines to comment on the ruling or on whether Williams plans to appeal to the state supreme court. The AP’s lead counsel, Richard Winfield, a partner at New York’s Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, referred inquiries to AP spokeswoman Kelly Tunney. Her office referred calls to David Tomlin, the assistant to AP President and Chief Executive Officer Louis Boccardi. Tomlin declined to comment. The AP’s New Jersey counsel, Donald Robinson, a partner at Newark’s Robinson & Livelli, welcomes the ruling. “The opinion is gratifying because it upheld the integrity and accuracy of the AP,” he says. A NATIONAL PAGEANT In 1989, the Piscataway Board of Education decided to reduce its business education staff by one teacher. Both Williams and Taxman were considered equally qualified and had equal tenure. The board, relying on its affirmative action policy, opted to fire Taxman, and her employment was terminated on June 30, 1989. Taxman, with the help of the U.S. Department of Justice, sued, claiming reverse discrimination. Taxman won at the District Court level and before the 3rd Circuit. Taxman was rehired in 1992, but continued to pursue a claim for back pay. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and had scheduled oral arguments in its 1997-1998 term. Shortly before oral argument, the board voted to settle the case for $433,500 after the Black Leadership Forum, an alliance of civil rights groups, agreed to pay 70 percent of the settlement. The group was trying to head off a possible precedent-setting ruling by the Court when it agreed to help fund the settlement. School board members said a decision by the Clinton administration, which initially supported the school board but then asked the Court not to get involved, spurred the settlement. When Taxman was fired, George Bush was president and the government supported Taxman.

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