Howard Finkelstein (Melanie Bell)
A former Broward assistant public defender who was fired for alleged hate speech, speaking through his attorney, claimed he did not disparage people of Islamic descent.
Gary Sheres was one of two assistants fired July 8 for comments on their Facebook accounts.
Jason Blank of Haber, Stief & Blank in Fort Lauderdale, Sheres’ attorney, said Wednesday that his client was wrongfully terminated and the firm is evaluating litigation possibilities.
Sheres was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech by expressing outrage and revulsion at the “atrocious” murder of three Israeli students in the West Bank last month and the celebrations that followed, Blank said in a statement.
He said news article that upset Sheres and Bruce Raticoff, who was also fired, depicted people of all ages, including young children, reveling in the teenagers’ death with a symbolic three-finger salute.
Sheres’ posting referred to those Palestinians as “the filthy swine they don’t eat.” A subsequent Raticoff posting claimed Palestinians “are considered the cockroaches of the world. Reprehensible and despicable with utter disregard for civility and humanity. Burn them to the ground.”
“Sheres did not disparage people of Arabic or Islamic descent. Rather, he solely expressed disgust at the individuals responsible for the murders and those depicted in the article. In a civilized world, no person can justify those atrocities,” Blank stated.
He went on to dispute Broward Public h Defender Howard Finkelstein’s version of how the firings unfolded. Finkelstein said he gave Sheres the opportunity to apologize and Sheres rejected the offer.
“To the contrary, at Mr. Finkelstein’s suggestion, Mr. Sheres prepared a statement apologizing to anyone unintentionally offended by his Facebook comment,” Blank said.
Instead of helping Sheres disseminate the statement, Finkelstein fired him, Blank said. Then Finkelstein embarked on a media campaign that was a blatant attempt to mischaracterize the truth “and justify his chilling of free speech.”
Blank noted that while Finkelstein regularly held officewide staff meetings over the 10 years that Sheres was employed, he had never before invited media to attend and broadcast a staff meeting as he did on the day of the firings.
Blank also criticized Finkelstein for associating with Nezar Hamze, the South Florida executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties group. Hamze attended the office meeting that aired on television. Blank claimed CAIR has ties to the Palestinian group Hamas, which is classified by the United States as a terrorist organization.
Sheres’ apology was directed at a Palestinian co-worker and was intended only for her and their office colleagues when he said he “unintentionally hurt people I consider my friends,” Finkelstein said Thursday. “He specifically would not apologize to the Arab community.”
The public defender noted he received calls from outraged Palestinians and other Arabs.
“The appropriate response is, ‘I am sorry that I grouped a whole swath of people together and condemned them.’ This has to do with the words that he used,” Finkelstein said.
Likely To Interfere?
Kelly Kolb of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, an employment law attorney not involved in dispute, said any lawsuit by fired attorneys likely would go to federal court to address the question of balancing free-speech rights and a government agency’s duty to perform its functions.
Finkelstein argued Sheres’ and Raticoff’s statements were so inflammatory that they gave the impression of bias against a minority group that would interfere with their ability to fairly and vigorously represent indigent defendants from that group.
Kolb said the controlling case is Lane v. Franks, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided June 19.
Edward Lane was an auditor at a state community college in Alabama. He testified under subpoena about events that led to the firing of a state representative who was consequently sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Lane was fired by the community college president and sued, alleging retaliation for his testimony. The college initially prevailed with the argument that Lane’s testimony was that of an employee performing his public duties.
“The analysis is the same,” Kolb said. “Are they speaking as employees or as citizens? Was it a matter of public concern, and can the government demonstrate their speech was likely to interfere with the ability of the public defender’s officer to perform its functions.”
Speech by a citizen on matters of public concern is afforded First Amendment protection, Kolb said. The Supreme Court held Lane spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern and also said the government failed to show a compelling public interest for silencing Lane.
“Whether Finkelstein’s reason is enough to override the First Amendment, I don’t know. It is at least more than the government came up with in Mr. Lane’s case,” Kolb said.