Tom Horne is violating students' rights & promoting Islamophobia, critics say

A local Muslim civil rights group is
pushing back on criticism of Amnesty International in Arizona schools
leveled last week by Tom Horne, the state’s schools chief, saying his
comments violate the free speech rights of students and contribute to
rising Islamophobia. 

Earlier this month, the student-led
chapters of UNICEF and Amnesty International at Desert Mountain High
School in Scottsdale met during lunchtime to discuss the Israel-Hamas
conflict, presenting a slideshow that, among other information, accused
Israel of committing various human rights violations against
Palestinians.

An early iteration of the slideshow was posted to social media, where it drew ire from right wing activists. Horne responded by calling on superintendents across the state to disband clubs aligned with the two organizations and denouncing the slideshow as antisemitic and anti-American. 

On Wednesday, the Arizona arm of the
Council on American-Islamic Relations publicly excoriated Horne, saying
the superintendent of public instruction took a political stance at the
expense of Muslim and Arab-American students. 

“Tom Horne sounded more like the
ambassador to the state of Israel than he did the superintendent of
public education in Arizona,” said volunteer board member and civil
rights attorney David Chami. “He was more worried about protecting the
image of the state of Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces than he was
in protecting the students in his state.” 

Chami, whose two sons are members of
Desert Mountain High’s Amnesty International club, said Horne also
attempted to publicly identify the club’s teacher sponsor, which
prompted the sponsor’s resignation from the club, effectively disbanding
it until another sponsor can be found. His actions and comments
infringed on the free speech rights of the students, Chami said, adding
that both of his sons and other students involved with the club have
faced backlash, including hate on social media and being called Nazis. 

The Council on American-Islamic
Relations, the national counterpart to the Arizona chapter, recently
reported a drastic rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents. In the
month since Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel on Oct. 7, CAIR
received 1,283 requests for help and reports of bias, a striking increase from 2022, when an average of 406 complaints were received in a 29-day period. 

In an emailed statement, Horne, who
is Jewish, strongly denounced discrimination against any students, but
appeared to remain unmoved in his opposition to Amnesty International. 

“I am adamantly opposed to
discriminating against anyone based on their race, religion or
ethnicity,” he said. “But objecting to people justifying the horrors of
the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel is a different matter. It is
worth noting that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, since
October 7th there has been an astonishing 388 percent increase in anti-semitic incidents in the U.S.”

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe,
criticized Horne for “putting a target” on students’ backs and said it
reminded her of the post 9/11 surge in discrimination she had to endure
as a Palestinian-American student. Salman, who has family in the
Israeli-occupied West Bank, has been a vocal advocate of Palestinian
rights, and earlier this month mobilized 16 of the state’s legislative
Democrats to send a letter to the Biden administration urging the President to call for a cease-fire.

It’s Horne’s responsibility to be mindful of and advocate for all students, Salman said. 

“When we have these positions of
power as elected officials, they come with an immense amount of
responsibility — especially when you are the top elected person who is
supposed to be advocating for all students,” she said. 

Kristine Harrington, a spokesperson
for Scottsdale Unified School District, told the Arizona Mirror last
week that the district had no plans to eliminate the clubs, and that
doing so would in fact be in violation of federal law. The Equal Access Act of 1984
expressly prohibits public schools from denying students the
opportunity to conduct meetings because of religious, political or
philosophical content. Banning the clubs as Horne requested would amount
to trespassing on the First Amendment rights of the students and force
the district to forfeit any federal funds.