Login to Claremont COURIER

Riley’s Farm files $11 million lawsuit against CUSD

For years, the Claremont Unified School District has taken kids to Riley’s Farm in Oak Glen, a “living history farm” that combines apple picking with immersive history presentations.

But now, the district had parted ways with Riley’s Farm, citing the questionable online presence of its owner, James Riley. Mr. Riley, in turn, has sued CUSD for nearly $11 million in lost revenue and defamation.

According to a suit filed by Mr. Riley’s counsel in October, someone identified in the document as “Conspirator A” found social media posts attributed to Mr. Riley on Twitter. According to a motion to dismiss by CUSD’s lawyers filed on November 7, a group of parents found the social media posts and took exception to them.

Those posts feature comments, some of them off-color, about newsmakers, politics and current events. One tweet referenced Stormy Daniels, who rose to prominence after she accused President Donald Trump of paying her off to keep quiet about their extra-marital affair.

“What is this country coming to if a girl can’t even use her bosoms to smack customers and then sue the president for unwanted sexual advances? #StormyDaniels,” he wrote.

The Twitter account, @riley909, has been taken down. But many of the tweets, and his website, remain online. In addition to the tweets mentioned in the complaint, Mr. Riley’s website—jamespatrickriley.com—includes a blog, which makes frequent reference to issues related to students and children.

In a March 27 post titled “Jim Crow for White Daddies,” he opened with, “A few years ago, I thought this was just the shrew-cackle of some far left feminists with daddy issues, engaging in the sort of edgy racism that would go without rebuke, since most of us daddy types are out making a living and we all have a few special needs children who need to be indulged.”

In a March 15 post, “Walk Out, Tune Out,” Mr. Riley admitted to personally contacting a high school student through social media. He wrote, “Against my better judgment, I engaged a young ‘walk-out’ correspondent on Facebook,” in reference to the high school students’ protest against gun violence.

He also referenced David Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School whose advocacy against gun violence has drawn ire from right-wing circles.

“I see some Delaware bureaucrat declaring that five year old children, in school, should be able to pick their gender identity without their parents’ consent. I watch the half-wit teenage wrath of a David Hogg, and the even stranger applause of his low-functioning adult fans,” he wrote in a post, titled “Easter, Roundabout,” on April 6. “I read about taxpayer money paying for transgender sensitivity training and abortion on demand, and I realize this world is flawed by virtue of its children, most of whom are the spiritual children of the devil.”

He also tweeted about school gun violence on his now-shuttered Twitter account. On February 24, he declared, “Let the teachers teach, by showing the kids how to kill a bad guy” and “You have to wonder about people who won’t allow teachers to arm themselves against the threat of assassins. Maybe the ‘Let the Teachers Teach’ crowd actually prefer students be killed, just as they support babies being killed in the womb.”

Some CUSD parents objected to the Riley’s Farm field trip and requested that their children be excused from attending, according to CUSD’s counsel. In response, other elementary schools within the district opted to not continue with field trips to the farm.

Mr. Riley contends that the decision to stop the field trips curtails his constitutionally protected free speech. The complaint filed in October specifically mentions Chaparral Elementary principal Ann O’Connor and Sumner Danbury Elementary principal Brenda Hamlett.

The complaint also names every member of the CUSD board, as well as Superintendent Jim Elsasser.

In their motion to dismiss, the district’s lawyers say that CUSD did not retaliate against Mr. Riley’s free speech.

“Neither CUSD nor its individually-named Board members, Superintendent, or school site principals, have curtailed or coerced the free expression of either Mr. Riley or Riley’s Farm,” the motion read. “At most, CUSD administrators simply exercised their broad discretion by initiating and carrying on alternative educational programs which better meet the needs of CUSD students.”

Further, the district contends that they never violated the constitutionally-protected free speech of Riley’s Farm, because their actions in stopping the field trips were based only on Mr. Riley’s commentary made in his individual capacity.

Mr. Elsasser declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. Nowhere in the complaint does it mention a formal contract between the district and Riley’s Farm.

Riley’s Farm is seeking nearly $11 million in compensatory damages from the school district, including $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.” They have requested a jury trial.

The CUSD isn’t the only group stepping away from Riley’s Farm. An anonymous website, BoycottRileysFarm.com, condemns Mr. Riley for what they say are his “deeply homophobic, transphobic, anti-equality and pro-gun rhetoric.”

“His viewpoints, of course, do not impact how apples grow, but his perspective can certainly change the discourse of how history is presented to school children on his farm,” the website states.

In a supplemental brief filed on December 17, lawyers for CUSD maintain that the district’s decision to stop field trips to Riley’s Farm in no way affected anyone’s first amendment rights. They noted that school administrators must choose field trips that are appropriate for students, taking into account the students’ age, maturity level and intellectual capacity.

“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 their supplemental brief, lawyers for Mr. Riley contend that exceptions to the first amendment should be few, tightly defined, and “justified only by the most compelling of interests.” None are found here, they add.

“Ultimately, this case involves one simple fact: Mr. Riley said something that conflicted with district officials’ perception of what is orthodox, and they abused their sovereign power to retaliate,” they wrote.

The case is ongoing.

—Matthew Bramlett and Kathryn Dunn

editor@claremont-courier.com