March 18, 2006
The Mayor and the Imam
When a government employee says “the greatest terrorists in the world occupy the White House,” he is bound to raise some hackles, but should it be a dismissible offense? The chief chaplain for the New York City Corrections Department, Imam Umar Abdul-Jalil, made that remark in a speech last year in Tucson before a group of Muslim students. For good measure, he also took a shot at “Zionists of the media.” What made the case seminal was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s response. He arrived at a Solomonic solution and, in the process, also found his voice on an issue that has challenged his administration in the past: free speech.
In an unexpectedly stirring defense of First Amendment rights, Mr. Bloomberg took wide-ranging swipes at the right and the left for stifling the airing of unpopular or offensive opinions. He stood up for immigrants, the free press, fair elections and justice. He rang the bell for intellectual freedom and for the right to criticize the government.
Mr. Abdul-Jalil will keep his $76,600-a-year job, but the mayor announced that he had been suspended without pay for two weeks for his failure to disclose that he had been speaking as a private citizen, not as a city employee. It was a fair outcome. The imam chose his words poorly, at the least. But those comments occupied brief moments in remarks that mostly encouraged Muslims to read the Koran and decried the high levels of incarceration in the United States. And the speech was only one event in a career that Jewish chaplains and other clerics at the Corrections Department have described as exemplary.
For the mayor, however, the moment could be much more significant. Mr. Bloomberg’s record on free speech took a beating in his first term after he moved aggressively to limit protests, most notably those surrounding the Republican National Convention in New York two years ago. And as a report in yesterday’s Times by Jim Dwyer made clear, the Police Department’s willingness to subvert free speech in the name of security appears to have gone beyond that one event to an ongoing strategy that included “proactive arrests” of political demonstrators who were spotted as potential troublemakers.
When this page endorsed Mr. Bloomberg’s re-election, we said we hoped that he would make up for his first-term lapses and make protection of free speech a hallmark of his second term. His decision on the imam can be an excellent beginning.