The First Amendment wasn’t designed for weak public officials..
Picture a timid father who has lost control of his family.
He can’t bring himself to discipline a shrieking shrew of a teenage daughter whose appetite for drama repeatedly empties the family’s emotional pantry. For every social occasion, she insists on her version of the invitation list. She spoils her siblings’ special occasions. She insists the spotlight remain firmly on her peeve du jour. She is even beginning to attract dangerous characters and she seems to enjoy the social discomfort they cause — as though her family’s desire for safety in the face of truly loathsome company is a sign of their closet hate-mongering. The rest of the family begs dad to do something, but their discomfort is easier to endure than her shouting matches.
I’ve just painted a picture of what the average agency chief faces when a social justice warrior goes on campaign. The obligations of being a magistrate require both reason and courage. You need to distinguish between a squeaky wheel that really does need grease and a witch sticking her broom in the spokes. You need the leadership gravity to laugh off, and isolate, witches on occasion, or, plainly, you shouldn’t be at the helm.
Our own First Amendment fight is characterized by utter cowardice on the part of public officials. Consider the case of James Elsasser, the superintendent of Claremont Unified School District. I imagine Dr. Elsasser is a congenial fellow, even a confessed Christian. He took undergraduate and advanced degrees from a Christian school — Azusa Pacific College. If no one under his supervision actually needs fair and impartial judgment, he’s probably the perfect fellow to be in charge. When nothing goes wrong, Elsasser’s your man. However, if the shrews begin lighting fires in the engine room, he’s the wrong skipper for the good ship hysteria.
To understand the speed with which Riley’s Farm was cancelled, it’s important to remember that the average white civil servant, (liberal or closet conservative), reacts almost involuntarily when presented with the need to confirm their socio-political orthodoxy. Consider, for example, the number of public figures falling all over themselves to believe Jussie Smollett’s fabricated account of being beaten by white supremacists. If a person of color asks the broader public to confirm their worries about discrimination, or if a feminist laments a glass ceiling, or if a lesbian demands a pride affirmation, the sympathy will rain down very quickly indeed. On the contrary, if someone like Jim Riley simply opines: “you know, I don’t see a lot of white supremacy out there and however much you may hate Trump, you can’t possibly be defending Stormy Daniels,” the rush to condemn, and distance, is immediate. You simply are not allowed to express ideas that are utterly rational and shared by millions, because when the social-grievance fascist demand a sieg heil, you better get that hand up quick, buddy.
When white female public school teachers hear the racial lament of a parent sniffing discrimination where it does not exist, you are metaphorically watching them tear off the hoop-skirts and shedding the hand-lashes they never owned. It would be hilarious, if it weren’t so disgusting.
A Cancel Culture Timeline
Here’s an approximate timeline of a cancel culture encounter. This one happens to be ours, but it’s one of thousands that have taken place across the country over the last five years..
- August 28-30, 2018: A Corona, California public school teacher, Krystal MacHott, writing under a Facebook alias (“Elizabeth Adams”) re-posted many of my personal tweets. Krystal, who took her own students here on field trips, was scandalized that I would mock Louis Farrakhan, David Hogg, and Stormy Daniels. The fact that Louis Farrakhan advocates genocide against the Jews, that David Hogg would happily destroy the Second Amendment, and that Stormy Daniels sexually assaulted an undercover officer, well, all of that was never actually addressed by Krystal. In Krystal’s world, no black can ever be racist, no student who hates guns can ever be wrong, and no whore can be unsavory if she’s also attacking Donald Trump. Krystal didn’t bother telling folks I was arguing with people who claimed “old white men” don’t deserve their lives, much less freedom of expression. She was just shocked that I would fight back.
- August 30, 2018: A single, unidentified parent who had been binging on Krystal MacHott’s social media posts complains about their child being taken on a Riley’s Farm field trip. A public records request reveals her concerns..
- August 30, 2018: the concerned, anonymous parent in question may have been borrowing trouble since there are quite a few Riley family businesses in Oak Glen and it appears their child wasn’t even attending one of our tours. The notion that any Riley family business (family or staff) would introduce “racist, homophobic, and misogynistic” content into a apple-picking, candle-dipping tour is–well, deep breath, count to ten–just the sort of projected worry we would expect from a generation that wants to infuse math lessons with gay grievance public service announcements.
- August 30, 2018: Michelle Wayson, a teacher in Claremont Unified School District, responds to the concerned parent and affirms that, while bringing students to Riley Family field trips, she had never “observed any bigotry, but this was through my lens.” Between 5:06 PM and 6:17 PM she also had the ability to confirm that none of her entire team at Chaparral Elementary shared “this person’s” (James Riley) “political or social views.” In other words, they don’t share my worry over Louis Farrakhan’s warm approval for Jewish genocide. (Well, of course they do, but they appear to be screaming, “MR. RILEY, PLEASE! Don’t you know we never accuse blacks of racism? It’s not allowed.)
- September 4, 2018: Several Claremont teachers succeed in cancelling a field trip that wasn’t even scheduled for our farm — so intense was the need to cancel anything “Riley.” In the publicly revealed correspondence, there is no debate about the decision, no effort to seek out the farm for comment, and no reflection upon their own experience on the field trip itself, even though many of them had years of experience visiting us. Even though one of them had never observed “any bigotry,” they couldn’t trust their senses or their lenses.
- September 7, 2018: By this time some of the 4th and 5th grade teachers had succeeded in cancelling the right Riley’s Farm field trip independently, but the administration is beginning to monitor the self-described “panic” in play. Assistant Superintendent Julie Olesniewicz writes Elsasser..
- September 7, 2018: Dr. Elsasser, upon being informed of a staff that is “panicking,” panics right along with them. Elsasser fails to calm down and ask the obvious questions that might be asked on such an occasion: have we talked to Riley’s Farm? Are any of these political observations part of the learning experience there? Is there any context to these tweets that might explain Mr. Riley’s intent?
- September 10, 2018: By this time, Elsasser had allowed the hysteria to find its final form in a formal blacklisting of Riley’s Farm. Assistant Superintendent Olesniewicz orders an existing field trip cancelled.
- September 24, 2018: Thomas Eastmond, an attorney representing Riley’s Farm, writes a letter to Claremont Unified School District informing them their actions were both illegal and unconstitutional. Decades of legal precedent confirm that public agencies cannot retaliate against an employee or a company vending services to such an agency based on an individual’s First Amendment expression outside of the job.
- October 2, 2018: Cathie L. Fields, an attorney representing Claremont, wrote a very florid response, effectively making our case for us. In language that more than a few attorneys have described as a basis for legal malpractice, Ms. Fields declared that Claremont had no obligation to abide by First Amendment case law…
Ms. Fields is either ignorant of First Amendment case law or — as recent events seem to indicate — progressive civil servants and politicians have simply declared themselves above the law. Ms. Fields knew that nothing in our field trips would expose children to sexist or racist attitudes. Claremont students had been attending those field trips for twenty years, with nothing but universal praise from their teachers. The decision was made entirely on a false perception of my personal beliefs, and it had nothing to do with the educational value of the field trip.
- December 2018 – Present: Shortly after Elsasser and company sanctimoniously, and reflexively, cancelled a twenty year relationship with Riley’s Farm, they received the benefit of more informed legal counsel. They were told, “um, you can’t do that” by insurance company lawyers who knew how expensive First Amendment retaliation might become. As a result, Claremont began lying. They claimed there never was a blacklisting policy, and then they admitted it existed under oath. When a Claremont teacher tried to book a field trip in 2021, it was cancelled quickly, without giving a reason. Subsequently, Claremont’s Board of Education formally announced that Riley’s Farm was an approved destination, even though their teachers are prevented from booking them. We will now return to the Ninth Circuit, seeking an injunction to stop all the deception.
In the nearly five years this case has been proceeding through the courts, both the Obama-appointed Federal district judge, Jesus Bernal, and the Ninth Circuit have clearly affirmed the principal for which we are fighting: if a public agency could arbitrarily terminate someone’s employment, or vendor status, simply because their private opinions were deemed unacceptable, the massive weight of our government could be used to silence all disagreement. The First Amendment’s value rests in protecting contrary expression, the sort of expression that forces people to think about their assumptions. Our political system, and even our material wealth, depend on listening to opposing opinions. George Schultz didn’t like his grandson going public with the Elizabeth Holmes fraud story, but had he listened to the young man earlier, the con wouldn’t have been as expensive.
Dr. Elsasser’s timid, reflexive response to a single parent’s misdirected complaint and the staff that felt obliged to confirm her paranoia is a prime example of how we might, someday, lose all of our civil liberties: we won’t have the courage to defend them. We will bow to the loudest, most obnoxious voices.
The irony in all this? My sentiments were closer to Dr. Martin Luther King’s than any of the public servants who were too afraid to consider my argument..
Blacklisting, Claremont, Elsasser, First Amendment, leadership
This post was written by Jim Riley