Judge rejects ‘obviously baseless assumption’ that First Amendment condemns the ‘alt-right’
This year, the Berkeley public school teacher and Antifa leader has been ordered to pay even more to a conservative legal organization for withholding public records it sought under state law.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria stuck Felarca with a $20,000 tab for her role in preventing Judicial Watch from obtaining records of her activism held by the Berkeley Unified School District. Namely, Felarca and two of her colleagues at King Middle School sued the school district to block release of the records.
Judicial Watch previously said it was the first time a third party had tried to block a state agency from answering its public records request, and the first time it had to “litigate a state public records act lawsuit in a federal court.”
“Attorney’s fees should only be awarded against civil rights plaintiffs in exceptional circumstances,” Chhabria wrote in Wednesday’s order. “This is an exceptional circumstance: Judicial Watch is entitled to attorney’s fees because the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was frivolous, and their litigation conduct was unreasonable.”
He noted that Felarca and her colleagues tried to block release of many of the same records that had been “publicly disclosed months earlier in another suit” she brought against the school district, “where she was represented by the same counsel”:
The plaintiffs then dragged their feet in producing a privilege log identifying the documents they sought to protect from disclosure and the reasons why non-disclosure was warranted. Consequently, the Court was forced to order the parties to meet and confer at the courthouse for several days to produce that log. … There was no reasonable basis for this dilatory conduct by the plaintiffs.
Chhabria, an Obama administration appointee, was just getting started.
He said Felarca and her colleagues Lori Nixon and Larry Stefl made claims “premised on the obviously baseless assumption that the First Amendment condemns the ‘alt-right’ while condoning the ideological missions of their own organizations.” They are active in the radical group By Any Means Necessary.
“The plaintiffs also mischaracterized the documents under review” and “failed to grapple with the role Ms. Felarca played in making herself a topic of public discourse through her physical conduct at public rallies and her voluntary appearance on Fox News,” Chhabria said, citing her interview with Tucker Carlson.
But the judge drastically cut down Judicial Watch’s nearly $318,000 in sought legal fees from Felarca.
Chhabria said it duplicated some of the arguments the school district made against Felarca’s lawsuit – technically, Judicial Watch is just an “intervenor” – and he blamed the school district itself for some of the “delays in the litigation.”
Judicial Watch also can’t be compensated for “time spent making arguments that pertained to state claims, which were not decided on the merits.” Chhabria said it improperly included “unreasonably high” litigation costs for “airfare and hotel rooms,” so he cut its requested $8,300 to a $4,000 award.
Finally, the judge said he must account for “the plaintiffs’ limited financial resources.” Because of Felarca’s leading role, she’s paying far more than Nixon and Stefl, who were each ordered to pay $1,000 to Judicial Watch in legal fees for their “relative responsibility for the frivolous and unreasonable conduct” identified by Chhabria.
Felarca’s lawyer Shanta Driver told Berkeleyside that the radical teachers would have become “indentured servants to Judicial Watch for the rest of their careers” if Chhabria had granted its full request for legal fees. But she denounced the ruling by the Obama appointee as “politically biased” and denied the lawsuit was “frivolous”:
“If the cost of being politically active and stating your political positions on non-work time … results in a right-wing troll organization being able to gain access to your email and other correspondences,” teachers will be scared to speak out, she said.
Paul Orfanedes, director of litigation for Judicial Watch, told Berkeleyside it hasn’t yet publicized the records it has received so as not to influence Chhabria’s ruling on the fee request.
It files Freedom of Information Act requests routinely and did not have “some particular goal in mind” with its request to the school district, he said. Rather, it wanted to see “how the district was responding to this storm of controversy.”
IMAGE: Tucker Carlson Tonight/YouTube