Judge dismisses lawsuit against CUSD by Riley’s Farm owner

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

A federal judge last month dismissed a first amendment lawsuit brought against the Claremont Unified School District, its superintendent, board and two principals by Riley’s Farm owner James Patrick Riley.

The lawsuit, which had sought $11 million in damages, alleged Mr. Riley’s first amendment free speech rights were violated when CUSD canceled field trips to his Oak Glen farm in 2018 after local parents objected to several social media posts they say were offensive, misogynistic and advocated white supremacy.

The suit was dismissed July 17 by US District Judge Jesus G. Bernal. Mr. Riley, through his attorney Thomas J. Eastmond, has vowed to file an appeal.

“We are pleased that the District Court dismissed this lawsuit in its entirety, including all claims against all defendants,” CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to moving on with District business.”

On the advice of CUSD legal counsel, Mr. Elsasser declined further comment.

“Because schools have special First Amendment status and the contract relationships potentially implicate government speech, cases involving government employees or denial of direct government benefits would not put a reasonable school official on notice that canceling a field trip in response to inflammatory speech violates the First Amendment,” Judge Bernal wrote in his opinion.

CUSD lawyers successfully argued the district’s decision to stop field trips to Riley’s Farm did not impact Mr. Riley’s first amendment rights, and that school administrators must choose field trips that are appropriate for students.

“CUSD administrators were well within their discretion to determine that a politically charged environment such as that was not appropriate for elementary school students,” they wrote in briefs filed with the court in 2018.

The $11 million suit included $125,000 in lost future revenues and profits “due to the district’s unlawful blacklisting of Riley’s Farm,” and $125,000 in “reputational damage to Mr. Riley and Riley’s Farm.”

Riley’s Farm “is a working apple orchard and living history farm featuring pick-your-own fruit, living history education, dinner theatre, group banquet facilities and extended, historically-themed overnight stays,” according to its website.


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