WASHINGTON – A former translator of U.S. broadcasts into Iran who was fired after making an Internet music video criticizing the Iraq War can continue her free speech lawsuit under a ruling Tuesday by a federal appeals court.
Melodi Navab-Safavi said in 2007 Voice of America terminated her contract for making an "anti-American" video, two weeks after the band she sang with in her off hours posted its song on YouTube.
In the video, "DemoKracy" by the band Abjeez, Navab-Safavi portrays a journalist singing about the "hypocracy" of the war's stated aim of spreading democracy while the video's images show bombs exploding in the streets, war-wounded Iraqi children and flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers.
Navab-Safavi argued she was speaking as a private person and the firing violated her freedom of speech. Government attorneys said allowing Navab-Safavi to continue translating could compromise Voice of America's journalistic integrity.
"As a translator for Voice of America, plaintiff had to provide accurate and objective translations of the statements made by reporters, interviewees and other speakers," the government argued in court filings. "If she was biased, or had a conflict of interest, neither the audience nor her supervisors could trust the accuracy and impartiality of her translation of those statements."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed that the lower court judge, Ellen Segal Huvelle, was correct to reject the government's motion to dismiss the case.
Navab-Safavi, a U.S. citizen born in Iran, began working as a contract employee to Voice of America's Persian Service in 2004. Her main responsibility was translating sound bites in news programs from English into Farsi, which the United States broadcasts into Iran roughly six hours a day on television and radio.
All of Abeez's members except Navab-Safavi live in Sweden, where she studied in college. The band's music is often related to women's rights and other social problems in Iran and is banned in that country.
Navab-Safavi's suit claimed her bosses encouraged her participation in the band and even broadcast their videos on occasion.
She said she never used her employer's resources or facilities for band activities, and the DemoKracy video doesn't identify her by name or mention Voice of America. The government responded in court filings that the video "spoofed a Voice of America broadcast" and copied the Persian Service's set, creating the impression it was shot there.
Navab-Safavi's suit said Sen. Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., pressured the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, to punish those associated with the production. The suit said board Chairman James Glassman, who was nominated by then-President George W. Bush, said in a meeting that the video was "anti-American."
The suit also said Navab-Safavi's husband, Persian Service employee Saman Arbabi, was asked to resign for helping produce the video, but he refused.
A three-judge appeals court panel found that Navab-Safavi did not pose much threat to Voice of America's journalistic integrity since she didn't have authority as a translator to make editorial decisions, appear on camera or speak on behalf of the U.S. government.
"It is not likely that the board would argue that, for example, a janitor or messenger could be discharged for making an anti-American video," the opinion said. "In contrast, it might well be that an on-the-air editorialist for VOA or a top executive could be discharged for the same conduct. On the allegations of the complaint, the district court did not err in concluding that appellee fell on the side nearer the role of the janitor than the editorialist or the executive."
The judges said further evidence as the case continues could change that determination, but the case should not be thrown out at this point.