An Olympic medalist is being sued for slander by a teacher who caused a stir with her hijab.
When a second-grader in New Jersey told her mother that her teacher had tried to take off her hijab, the story spread like wildfire on social media.
Last October, a few seconds of conversation in a classroom in New Jersey caused a national firestorm as it spread through social media. A 7-year-old Muslim girl came home from school upset and told her mother that her teacher in Maplewood, New Jersey, had tried to take off her hijab.
Her mother told the story on Facebook, and Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, who fences while wearing a hijab, immediately called it abuse in an Instagram post that went viral. The next day, Gov. Philip D. Murphy weighed in on Twitter, and an Islamic group from all over the state called for the teacher to be "immediately fired."
After one year, the case is now in court. The family filed a lawsuit against the school district and Tamar Herman, the teacher. This month, the teacher filed a defamation suit in New Jersey's Superior Court, saying that the Olympian, the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Rights, and the director of that chapter caused "irreparable harm."
Ms. Herman is also suing the South Orange-Maplewood school district in federal court. She says that the district was involved in what she calls "continuous discrimination."
"What started as a simple misunderstanding between the plaintiff, who is Jewish, and one of her second-grade students, who is Muslim, turned into defendants' involvement in a parade of outrageous, false, defamatory, and antisemitic statements," the federal lawsuit, which was filed a day before the state suit, says.
The incident shook up a town known for its liberal values. It also made many Muslims, who make up about 3% of the state's population and have seen a rise in bias crimes, very worried.
Even though many of the facts weren't clear, there were a lot of angry opinions on social media right away.
Sahar Aziz, a professor at Rutgers Law School and the author of "The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom," a book about Islamophobia, said that the strong response at the local, state, and national levels is in large part the result of 20 years of feeling targeted and vulnerable.
The teacher said in the defamation lawsuit that she "brushed" back a hooded garment that was covering the student's eyes because she thought the girl was wearing her usual "form-fitting" hijab underneath. She said that once she realized her mistake, she quickly replaced the head covering and told the girl she was sorry.
In her state lawsuit, she says that the fencer, Ms. Muhammad, and CAIR-NJ were "driven by a mix of greed and a fierce desire to burnish their brands as fighters against Islamophobia." She also says that her reputation was so hurt that no other public school district will ever hire her again.
The court papers also mention comments that Governor Murphy made on social media, but he is not named as a defendant.
The state lawsuit, which was filed on October 5 in Union County Superior Court, also says that Ms. Herman has to leave her home for good because she is afraid for her safety in the community where she lived and taught for 20 years.
"Her community has turned its back on her," her lawyer, Erik Dykema, said.
Ms. Muhammad and Wasserman, the agency that works for her, did not answer the messages that were sent to them.
The head of CAIR-NJ, Selaedin Maksut, said that he and his organization didn't know about the defamation claim until Monday.
"We can't say anything yet about this filing because our lawyers need to look it over first," CAIR-NJ said in a statement. "However, we continue to strongly support this student, who had a clear right under the Constitution to cover her hair for religious reasons without being physically hurt or embarrassed."
On October 6, 2021, about five weeks after school started in the northern New Jersey school district, the incident happened.
Ms. Herman has said that the girl's face was almost completely hidden by the mask she and her classmates had to wear to stop the spread of Covid-19 at the time, as well as by what the lawsuits call a "hood."
When Ms. Herman saw that the girl wasn't wearing a hijab underneath, she "immediately brushed the hood back to cover all of the student's hair and apologized," according to the state filing. "The student's hood never came off."
Robert L. Tarver, a lawyer for the family, said that the child said no right away and held on to the hat.
In a lawsuit that the girl's parents filed in March, they said that Ms. Herman touched the girl's hair and "told her that her natural hair was beautiful."
Court records show that the case was dropped last month. On Monday, Mr. Tarver said that the two sides were "negotiating a settlement," but he didn't say much more than that.
He told her that he had nothing to say about her claim that she had been hurt.
Because the original accusation was about possible bias over a religious item worn to cover hair and keep modesty, the district quickly sent the case to the Essex County Prosecutors Office, which led an investigation but decided not to file criminal charges.
The lawsuit says that the teacher has not been let back into the classroom and is still on administrative leave. A district spokeswoman said she didn't know anything about the teacher's job or the federal lawsuit right away.
The conversation spread quickly outside of Seth Boyden Elementary School.
Mr. Maksut wrote on Twitter that "racist teachers like this can't be trusted around our kids." He went on ABC's "Good Morning America" to talk about how his group wants Ms. Herman fired right away.
Ms. Muhammad has lived in Maplewood for a long time. She fenced for the high school team in the district and has written a book for kids about a girl who wears a hijab. The day after the incident at Seth Boyden, Ms. Muhammad, who also has a fashion line and a Barbie doll made in her image, asked her large social media following to call and email the school.
"Think about being a kid and having your clothes taken off in front of your friends," she wrote. "Think about how humiliating and upsetting this must have been for her. This is wrong!"
The district got thousands of angry emails and phone calls over the next few weeks. Students at the elementary school couldn't go outside for gym class or recess for a while because of safety concerns. Protesters and network news cameras were outside.
Parents from Maplewood, N.J., and South Orange, N.J., which are neighboring towns about 30 miles from Manhattan and share a school district, posted a lot of opinions on Facebook groups that were popular with them. When Ms. Herman's Jewish faith came up in the online discussion, the anger level went up.
Ms. Herman, who was dressed in suits, said she had heard "anti-Semitic vitriol and hatred."
The Lawfare Project, a non-profit that works to protect the "civil and human rights of the Jewish people around the world," is paying for her lawsuit for defamation.
Mr. Dykema said that as a public figure, Ms. Muhammad "should have known better."
"And she should have done a little more research before saying the things she did online," he said.