After Speaking Out

A $1 million libel lawsuit against Mexican-American studies teachers and TUSD continues

Tom Horne has acknowledged that he's never visited a Tucson Unified School District Mexican-American studies class, even though he championed the law that made the classes illegal.

Instead, the state attorney general and former superintendent of public instruction has had former TUSD teacher John Ward by his side during press conferences, to provide a glimpse into what happened in those classrooms. While doing so, Ward is celebrated by some as a whistle-blower who justifies the claims of Horne and others that the classes created racial resentment and even encouraged students to overthrow the U.S. government.

However, those who support the classes and the teachers who taught them look at Ward as a tool. And when Ward began to speak out in support of Horne and the law, MAS instructors who worked with him when he was a teacher began to speak out, too.

As a result, Ward is suing former MAS director Sean Arce; former instructor Jose Gonzalez; and Augustine Romero, the former TUSD director of student equity who is now the director of the district's multicultural curriculum. His suit, which seeks $1 million in damages, claims they falsely said that Ward was removed from a MAS classroom in 2002 after he slammed a book on his desk and used inappropriate language in front of students in reaction to a lesson being taught by Arce.

Ward, who was co-teaching the lesson with Arce, has said he was removed for speaking out against the MAS curriculum, and that his removal was a form of retaliation.

The lawsuit was filed in 2011 and has yet to go to trial. There has been a series of discovery hearings, and most recently, Tucson attorney Richard Martinez filed a motion to prevent the release of Arce and Gonzalez's TUSD personnel records.

Ward is represented by former TUSD school-board candidate Armand Salese, and Ned Garn, the attorney who filed a public-records request for Arce, Gonzalez and Romero's personnel records. Romero is represented by TUSD attorneys, and his personnel records have been released, according to Salese.

Martinez declined to be interviewed for this story, but Salese told the Tucson Weekly that he expects the judge to hear the motion to quash the public-records request later this month or in September. The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial on Jan. 15, 2013.

"The trial has been continued once at Martinez's request, but we are not going to agree to continue it again," Salese said.

Salese said it isn't unusual in this type of litigation to use facts discovered in personnel documents as part of a lawsuit.

"We are interested in disciplinary actions and complaints that would be an issue in this case. ... In any litigation, you want to know about the parties and what they've done," Salese said. "We're not interested in personal problems, like divorce."

Martinez's motion contends that Ward's attorneys seek "to obtain the information contained in these personnel and discipline records, not for any reasons related to the issues being litigated in this case, but for the sole purpose of publicizing the information and exposing these defendants, their spouses and children to public hurt and humiliation."

Salese confirmed that depositions have taken place, and said that he is getting ready to depose other witnesses, although he wouldn't share their names. When asked if any potential witnesses are former students who may have witnessed Ward's alleged book-slamming and cursing, he said no.

"Some are school administrators involved in this from back then ... who have knowledge of what happened in the class," he said.

Salese contends that Ward's lawsuit isn't political or about the Mexican-American studies program. He says it's a defamation case that examines whether the defendants made certain statements, and whether they were true.

MAS supporters have characterized the litigation as a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit, filed to intimidate and distract activists and supporters who are trying to restore the classes, which were eliminated last January. Horne has spoken out in support of Ward's lawsuit, and even spoke at a $50-per-person fundraiser to help pay for Ward's legal costs.

Salese said he hasn't received any money from Horne.

The Weekly asked the attorney general's media liaison in April whether there were concerns that Horne's actions could be a conflict of interest.

"The man was libeled, and Tom Horne helps him. We don't see how that could be a conflict of interest," spokeswoman Amy Rezzonico replied in an email. "There would be a conflict if we represented TUSD or the individual people who did the libeling, but we don't."

On Horne and the fundraising, Salese said, "Look, I don't care what Horne does. I am a Democrat, and I've been doing civil-rights stuff for years. This (lawsuit) isn't about politics.

"If somebody says you were removed as a teacher because you used foul language in the classroom and made a disturbance, that affects your reputation. ... It's all over the Web. ... If he wants to go back to teaching, and he does, it could be a problem for him."

Asked when Ward expects to return to the classroom, Salese said he didn't know, but he did confirm that Ward now works for the state Department of Education.

"Was he thrown out of the classroom as a teacher because he swore? That's the issue. Did he do that, or was he thrown out as a consequence of sharing his opinion (about the program)? ... That's his prerogative, and people have the right to express their views without fear of being retaliated against," Salese said.