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A Charter School Plays the Race Card

MAILANDER ON LA - For bloggers, the first message pitch sent by a politician or a special interest organization typically comes in the form of a "cease and desist" letter.

In Los Angeles, an attorney has sent another peculiar "Cease and Desist" letter to a blogger--this one on behalf of a controversial Latino-centric charter school.  And its community has followed up with claims that the "anti-Mexican...hate speech" of several years ago is fueling gossip about the school's operations today. The letter the MayorSam blog received from an attorney representing Academia Semillas del Pueblo on LA's Eastside exhibits a new level of audacity in demonstrating how a para-government organization might like to stifle ordinary inquiry into the way a highly politicized public organization conducts business--using a relatively new tool, a claim of "tortious interference" and playing that claim against far broader First Amendment concerns.

And all of this is over a "community based social enterprise" program--a program involving the franchising of food service operations to local food service providers--in which the school recently discovered that "one of our required permits may no longer be active."

The attorney in question, Salomon Zavala, representing the academy as General Counsel, may have only offered a list of highly opinionated comments at the site that he finds hostile--and significantly, he does not document point-for-point how the blog's comments are wrong, only insisting that they are "patently libelous" and also "evidence your tortious interference."

This last claim is particularly odd--but also part of the new legal landscape.  Tortious interference famously entered case law when a man in the early eighteenth century shot at ducks on the pond that a neighbor had built to attract the ducks.  Its purpose is to protect the ability of individuals and businesses to enter and maintain contracts without undue interference, typically from outside competitors.  

But it is ordinarily very difficult--and some would say tortuous--to apply "tortious interference" to a media entity, even one that often plays as fast and loose as MayorSam--which I've called "LA's only tabloid" in the past--without first raising a stalwart First Amendment defense.

Nearly a decade ago, Zavala himself was on the board of the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, a Latino-progressive legal review, while a law student at Boalt.  As general counsel for Semillas Sociedad Civil, he lends counsel to the Academia, long thought by local conservatives to be far more than a place where difference is celebrated; rather it is seen by many conservatives as a place where Anglo American values and traditions are even actively called into question.

Many conservatives conversely believe that it is Academia Semillas that is practicing reverse racism, playing race cards to discourage more extensive media inquiry.

Indeed, Zavala's letter is especially odd and perchance clumsy, because Cease and Desist letters are often prompts to broader media inquiry; and recently, Academia Semillas has escaped serious sustained media inquiry by politically unaffiliated mainstream media, though it has been a constant concern of right-leaning radio and bloggers since a dust-up with some right-wing radio jocks in 2005.

Absent mainstream-media level resources, para-government organizations often perceive that bloggers are easy to intimidate; but that is not necessarily the case in all instances--as Zavala found out when Mayor Sam’s Johnson simply published his Cease and Desist letter and boldly exclaimed "Bring It On!" in assigning a title to his next piece.

The claims that Johnson has been making for years about Academia portray the school not merely as a place where ethnicity simply matters but as a decidedly Latino-titling organization that exhibits a near-paranoid distrust of common operational inquiry.  

That the school has at last responded, not with statistics or evidence contrary to many of Johnson's claims, but with a menacing Cease and Desist letter, is not promising.  

This letter in particular can easily be read as a disturbing attempt to harass a blogger, and indeed MayorSam editor Michael Higby alerted several people in local media when the blog received Zavala's letter.

By then, Johnson had already defiantly published Zavala's Cease and Desist letter.  He also later published another menacing letter from Semillas Community Schools Executive Director Marcus Aguilar to the Semillas community claiming that "[t]hese recent attacks against Semillas del Pueblo are generally anti-Mexican and based on the hate-speech directed against our community since 2006."

The MayorSam blog doesn't seem too worried about the threats of Zavala, Aguilar and the school.  In the words of a noteworthy east coast editor who was instrumental in bringing down Mayor Marion Barry: "If you're in this business and you're not getting sued, you're not really in this business."

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at street-hassle.blogspot.com.)
-cw

Tags: Joseph Mailander, Mailander LA, Salomon Zavala, Academia Semillas del Pueblo, charter schools, Los Angeles,  MayorSam, Mayor Sam blog, blogs, bloggers







CityWatch
Vol 10 Issue 48
Pub: June 15, 2012

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