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Supreme Court won't hear appeal over 9/11 poem

  • Story Highlights
  • New Jersey poet laureate gave reading in 2002 of controversial poem about 9/11
  • Poem suggests "Israelis" had advance warning of attacks on World Trade Center
  • Firing poet Amiri Baraka not allowed, so officials eliminated poet laureate position
  • Baraka sued; Court of Appeals ruled against him; Supreme Court let that ruling stand
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From Bill Mears
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to hear an appeal from poet Amiri Baraka, whose controversial poem about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to the elimination of an honorary post he held as New Jersey's poet laureate.

The justices declined without comment to intervene in Baraka's lawsuit against current and former state officials who he says retaliated against him for his public reading of "Somebody Blew Up America."

At issue was whether state officials had "legislative immunity" from such suits, even when they targeted an individual for special treatment, as Baraka alleges.

Baraka, a self-described "poet icon and revolutionary political activist" was named poet laureate in 2002 by then-Gov. James McGreevey, on the recommendation of the state's Council for the Arts. The post was designed to encourage poetry by having the honoree stage at least two public readings a year. The honorarium paid $10,000 a year for a two-year term.

Two months after his appointment, Baraka -- a longtime resident of New Jersey -- read the poem in question before a local arts festival.

Among the poem's lines:

"Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed

"Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers

"To stay home that day

"Why did Sharon stay away?"

State officials were outraged, but under the law, McGreevey could not fire the poet from his appointed post. Baraka refused the governor's request to resign, saying his work was neither anti-Semitic nor racist.

McGreevey then supported eliminating the poet laureate position, which the Legislature did in July 2003.

State officials denied the poet's claims that they "commenced a concerted campaign" to target Baraka, who turned 73 last week. Much of the case turned on specific things McGreevey and other officials may or may not have done.

In an open letter after the vote, Baraka called it a "confirmation of the ignorance, corruption, racism, and criminal disregard for the U.S. Constitution."

Baraka's Web site refers to the case, saying, "The recital of the poem 'that mattered' engaged the poet warrior in a battle royal with the very governor of New Jersey and with a legion of detractors demanding his resignation as the state's poet laureate because of "Somebody Blew Up America's" provocatively poetic inquiry (in a few lines of the poem) about who knew beforehand about the New York City World Trade Center bombings in 2001."

In its 2-1 ruling in March, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded, "Baraka, like any person, was free to speak his views. But he had no protected legal interest in the maintenance of the position of poet laureate of New Jersey."

The judges also said, "Baraka's vague references to the conduct of the unknown defendants [state officials] are insufficient to constitute allegations" made by him that he was personally targeted for reprisal.

The case is Baraka v. McGreevey (07-79).

In another decision announced Tuesday, the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the pending transfer of an alleged terrorist held by the U.S. military, despite his fears of being tortured if sent back to his home country of Algeria.

Ahmed Belbacha has been incarcerated at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for five years, and has been fighting in federal courts to stay there.

He has said that because of his Islamist beliefs, he would be punished by the Algerian government if he returns.

The ruling from the high court means the military may proceed with its repatriation efforts, but there is no word when any transfer would take place. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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