Yvette Felarca, the Berkeley middle school teacher who is a national organizer for the radical group By Any Means Necessary, filed a lawsuit Monday to prevent the school district from releasing emails about her to a far-right group.
Felarca and two others who work at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School are asking the federal courts to issue a temporary restraining order stopping the release of emails containing the words “Felarca,” “Antifa,” and “By All Means Necessary,” [sic] and “BAMN” to Judicial Watch.
Vince Chhabria, the U.S. District Court Judge overseeing the case, issued a tentative ruling Tuesday ordering BUSD to delay the date it had asked MLK staff to turn over relevant emails so that it could comply with Judicial Watch’s request. BUSD had set that date for Nov. 2, prompting Felarca to ask for a TRO by then. Chhabria ordered the district to bump that requirement until Nov. 9 to give the court time to consider the TRO. (Update: the TRO has been extended to Nov. 23)
The suit by Felarca, Lori Nixon, a staffer at MLK and Larry Stefl, a teacher at MLK, against BUSD, the superintendent Donald Evans, and Janet Levenson, the principal of MLK, argues that Judicial Watch is misusing the public records act for political means and BUSD should refuse to comply. Previous courts have ruled that a “public record” must relate in some way to the conduct of the public’s business, according to the suit. Personal communications that are only incidental to an agency’s business aren’t public records, the suit argues, so BUSD should decline to supply them.
“BUSD’s pursuit of Judicial Watch’s illegal CPRA request would transform the CPRA into something unrecognizable and far-removed from its original intent of making the acts of government officials public,” the motion reads. “Instead, it would become a tool for employers and political organizations to spy on and police public employees for their political beliefs and affiliations, including concerted activities for their mutual benefit.”
Judicial Watch is a conservative group best known for pressing for the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails during her run for the Presidency. The group frequently files Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against government officials and agencies to force the release of records. The group has sued the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. According to Wikipedia, Judicial Watch is the plaintiff in more than 20 ongoing lawsuits involving Hillary Clinton. BUSD received Judicial Watch’s request on Sept. 8, said Charles Burress, the district spokesman.
BUSD said in a statement last week that it must comply with Judicial Watch’s request. However, BUSD said it will not comply with all elements of the request. The conservative group also asked for Felarca’s personnel file, which is exempt from the CPRA. The district will not release that and “will aggressively protect the legal rights of our employees in responding to this request,” it said in a statement.
BUSD is reviewing Felarca’s lawsuit, according to Burress.
In a statement attached to the motion, Felarca points out that while she has worked for the Berkeley school district for 11 years, she is just a teacher and does not have “administrative or decision-making power over personnel, budget, curriculum adoption, buildings and grounds, student expulsion,” and other matters. For that reason, the emails requested are not relevant, the suit contends.
In addition to challenging the legality of BUSD’s decision to comply with Judicial Watch’s request, the motion argues that BUSD’s actions have had a chilling effect on those at MLK. The district sent out a memo telling all King employees to either search their own emails for the words “Felarca,” “Antifa,” and “By All Means Necessary,” [sic] and “BAMN” by Nov. 2, or request the district do it. The district also held a meeting to discuss the request, and a number of teachers and staff were visibly upset, according to the motion. A number have conveyed that they are now fearful to speak out about their own political beliefs.
Nixon, who has worked at MLK for a year, said in a statement attached to the complaint that BUSD has an obligation to protect teachers, staff and students from outside harassment that interferes with the basic functions of the school. She said BUSD has been falling down in that regard since it did nothing this year to stop the bombardment of calls and emails from right-wingers complaining about MLK staff. (She did not specifically name Felarca.) The staff “does not have the time nor the obligation to involve themselves in a political witchhunt against Ms. Felarca. We are busy serving the youth of this community and researching our coworkers’ outside activities is not a priority.”
Shanta Driver, a BAMN attorney, said many teachers are concerned that they will become targets of the far-right if Judicial Watch gets their names.