Teacher Yvette Felarca can’t stop Berkeley Unified from releasing records about her to a conservative organization, a federal judge ruled last week.
More than a year ago, the Washington, D.C.-based Judicial Watch asked BUSD for Felarca’s personnel file and all emails sent by district and school staff containing the words “Felarca,” “antifa,” “By All Means Necessary” [sic] and “BAMN.” Felarca is a Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher, currently working part-time, and is a prominent activist with the radical group By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN.
When BUSD received the request, district officials put out a statement pledging to “aggressively protect the legal rights of our employees” by withholding the personnel file and other communications not subject to the California Public Records Act (CPRA). But the district had a “clear legal obligation” to provide other records, it said.
In October 2017, Felarca and two other King employees sued BUSD, Superintendent Donald Evans and King Principal Janet Levenson, seeking to prevent them from releasing any records. They said the release of the records would violate employees’ free speech and privacy rights by disclosing their political affiliations and chilling future political speech and activity.
The plaintiffs named Judicial Watch as a party in the case, claiming the group was misusing public records law. Granting the group’s request would turn CPRA into “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,” they said.
In his Friday ruling, Judge Vince Chhabria said the disclosure of the documents to Judicial Watch would not violate the plaintiffs’ rights.
“It is not a close question,” said Chhabria in his succinct, three-paragraph order.
The judge also dismissed other claims against BUSD, saying the district has immunity under the 11th Amendment.
In an email to Berkeleyside on Tuesday, Felarca said, “We disagree with the judge’s decision and continue to assert that teachers and support staff have a right to free speech, free association and privacy. Right-wing trolls should not be able to use the cover of the legal system to harass teachers, support staff and families in the public schools.”
BUSD, in a statement emailed to Berkeleyside on Tuesday afternoon, said Judicial Watch’s records request “imposed a significant burden on our district. Hundreds of hours of staff time have already been spent” on collecting the records. “We are grateful to our employees for their diligence in helping us comply with the law. We know that they would much rather be focused on the work of educating our children.”
The lawsuit “has resulted in additional loss of staff time and district funds. Litigation can result in the diversion of resources that should be devoted to directly supporting our students and staff,” the district said.
Judicial Watch, best known as a force behind the effort to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails, has filed thousands of records requests over its 24-year history, according to the group. The group’s founder, Larry Klayman, has also personally filed countless often unsuccessful lawsuits and has been sanctioned for various actions and banned from two judges’ courtrooms for his behavior. Though many of his and his organization’s records requests have resulted in court cases, the Berkeley lawsuit was the first filed by a third party attempting to stop the release, Judicial Watch said in an October statement.
The organization called Felarca’s argument “preposterous” and said the judge’s order represented “a huge victory for the public’s right to information about government and the taxpayer-funded officials that operate it.”
Judicial Watch is not the only conservative group or figure to focus on Felarca. In 2016, the teacher went to a violent neo-Nazi rally and counter-protest in Sacramento and was later arrested and charged with felony assault and inciting a riot when a video showed her hitting one of the white-nationalist ralliers. (The preliminary hearing for the Sacramento case is approaching.) When Felarca appeared on Fox News in 2017, BUSD officials said they received more than 1,000 phone calls and emails demanding the district fire her.
Felarca has repeatedly accused Berkeley Unified and Sacramento law enforcement of conducting a “witch hunt” against her and other activists.
This story was updated with a response from BUSD.