NEWARK — A former New Jersey train conductor who was fired after publicly burning pages from the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks filed a lawsuit yesterday seeking reinstatement and monetary damages.
Derek Fenton’s dismissal violated his constitutional right to free expression, the American Civil Liberties Union said in its lawsuit. Fenton burned part of the Koran to protest plans to build an Islamic center several blocks from the World Trade Center site. Police ushered him from the scene, but he was not arrested. NJ Transit said it fired him two days later for violating its code of ethics.
Fenton “has the right to engage as a citizen in expressive activity about matters of public interest, including matters related to the proposed construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero,’’ the lawsuit alleges. “When he burned pages of the Koran on September 11, 2010, as a protest against the center, Fenton was exercising that right.’’
NJ Transit’s code of ethics requires employees to give notice to an ethics liaison officer before participating in political activities. An employee can then participate so long as state or federal law or agency rules don’t explicitly prohibit them and “the activity doesn’t conflict with the employee’s official duties.’’
It is unknown if Fenton gave notice of his plans. An NJ Transit spokeswoman said Thursday that the agency wouldn’t comment on pending litigation. Fenton’s listed phone number was not in service.
Frank Corrado, an ACLU lawyer handling the case, said the First Amendment doesn’t protect employees of private companies, but it applies in Fenton’s case because NJ Transit is a quasi-public company.
“The First Amendment protects you against governmental action,’’ Corrado said. “He’s speaking as a citizen on an issue of public importance, so what governs his ability to speak is the First Amendment and not some employment law.’’