Illustration by Grace Schafer-Perry
Recently, the far right watchdog group Judicial Watch submitted a California Public Records Act (CPRA) Request to Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) for emails and documents involving the radical group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Teacher and BAMN organizer Yvette Felarca, and Antifa. On October 30, Felarca and two colleagues filed a lawsuit to prohibit the district from releasing the requested materials.
The public records request solicited “any and all records of communications between BUSD Superintendent and any other BUSD officials and/or staff of Martin Luther Kind [sic] Jr. Middle School mentioning ‘Felarca’, ‘Antifa’, ‘By All Means Necessary’, and /or ‘BAMN.’” It also requested all communications “between and among faculty/staff members of Martin Luther King, Jr, Middle School mentioning ‘Felarca’, ‘Antifa’, ‘By All Means Necessary’, and /or ‘BAMN,’” and asked for Felarca’s personnel file.
In response to Felarca’s lawsuit, School Board President Ty Alper said “We will await instructions from the court before proceeding with the request.”
In an October 27 email to BUSD community members, Alper and Superintendent Donald Evans described the inconvenience of responding to records requests.
“We are a relatively small district, and the volume and breadth of the CPRA requests we receive poses a challenge to our ability to focus on our educational mission,” the email stated.
They wrote that gathering the requested records takes hundreds of hours of staff time that could be spent on supporting students.
However, Alper and Evans said that the district must comply with the request, regardless of its motivations or implications. “The District takes its obligations under the CPRA seriously, because we strongly believe in transparency in public agencies,” Alper said later via email.
He added that the district frequently receives CPRA requests from a wide range of requesters.
Regarding the impact of releasing email communications on Felarca’s teaching or Judicial Watch’s objectives, Alper said, “I don’t know what emails might have to be disclosed to Judicial Watch in response to the request. So there is no way to speculate about what the impact of releasing any communications might be.”
Felarca thought that Judicial Watch’s intended impact was transparent. “Well there’s no question, [Judicial Watch is] trying to conduct a witch hunt,” she said.
According to Felarca, several school staff have submitted declarations in support of her lawsuit under seal. Felarca and plaintiffs King teacher Larry Stefl and King after school program specialist Lori Nixon are those who wished to go public. The court has given these staff the option to go through their own emails, as opposed to allowing their employer to do this.
If the district is told to comply with Judicial Watch’s request, the plaintiffs will have the opportunity to contest the submission of any of the documents identified by the district. Nixon said that if it came to this, they would likely contest all of the documents.
Felarca said she is not concerned so much with which political movement Judicial Watch may be targeting as she is with potential violations of any teacher’s rights to freedom of speech and association. If a National Rifle Association supporter were in her situation, she said, she would support them. “One thing that I see is the attack on public education, and in turn an attack on our democracy and what impact this kind of thing has for the future,” Stefl said.
Felarca and her colleagues planned to ask for their union’s support. In their email statement, Alper and Evans said, “If there was a legal basis for ignoring burdensome requests, we would certainly use it. There is not.” Ultimately, the judge will decide when the case is revisited, likely in January 2018.