A battle over the First Amendment is raging across the country, especially on college campuses. Republican clubs book controversial speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro or Steve Bannon, then liberal groups protest and the event is canceled. Conservatives say it is a violation of their free speech rights, and liberals say they have a right to prevent the institution they are affiliated with from giving speakers with hateful messages a platform to spread their discrimination.
That debate has come home to Pasadena.
The Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence (CCJ), based at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, filed a complaint in federal district court on Nov. 28 on behalf of the Pasadena Republican Club (PRC) against the Western Justice Center (WJC) and the city of Pasadena.
PRC allege that WJC canceled their event at the last minute because of the scheduled speaker’s anti-same-sex marriage views. The civil rights complaint, filed in federal court, alleges political and religious discrimination and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and unspecified monetary damages. It was filed by Anthony Caso, director of CCJ.
“The essence of the complaint is that they’ve taken public property and they’ve decided who can use it based upon political or religious viewpoint,” Caso said. “Take your pick; both are unconstitutional.”
According to the complaint, PRC President Lynn Gabriel signed a contract in early 2017 with then-WJC Executive Director Judith Chirlin, a retired LA Superior Court judge, to rent the Maxwell House in west Pasadena for the club’s next event on April 20, 2017, for a fee of $190. The Maxwell House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and located just a few doors from the US Ninth District Court of Appeals, is owned by the city of Pasadena. The city leases the Maxwell House to WJC for $1 a month. PRC had held meetings at the Maxwell House before, featuring different speakers.
The Pasadena Republican Club was founded in 1884, two years before Pasadena incorporated as a city, making it the oldest continuously active Republican club in the United States. According to its website, the club is “dedicated to electing Republican candidates to federal, state and local office. [It] funds and operates the Republican [election] headquarters in Pasadena every two years.” The Western Justice Center is a nonprofit organization that “develops creative programs to teach students, teachers and members of the community ways to resolve conflict peacefully.”
In the complaint, Gabriel asserted that she informed Chirlin at that time that the speaker at the event would be Dr. John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). NOM was formed in 2007 to promote the passage of Prop 8, the controversial 2008 ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.
Eastman also previously served as the dean of Chapman University’s law school and was the founding director of CCJ, which is representing PRC in this lawsuit. He has argued many cases before the Supreme Court and engineered President Trump’s recent call to end birthright citizenship. At the Maxwell House event, he was planning to deliver a Supreme Court update.
According to the complaint, at 3:43 p.m. on April 20, 2017, less than three hours before Eastman’s talk was to begin at 6:30 p.m., Chirlin emailed Gabriel to cancel the event, writing, “While I knew that Prof Eastman was a professor and author, we learned just today that he is the President [sic] of the National Organization for Marriage. NOM’s positions on same-sex marriage, gay adoption, and transgender rights are antithetical to the values of the Western Justice Center. WJC works to improve campus climates with a special focus on LGBT bias and bullying. We work to make sure that people recognize and stop LGBT bullying. Through these efforts we have built a valuable reputation in the community, and allowing your event in our facility would hurt our reputation in the community.”
The complaint asserted that WJC’s contract required a disclaimer to be included on any publicity for the event that read, “The Western Justice Center/Maxwell House does not endorse the views expressed by this organization or its speakers,” a rule that Caso said PRC followed.
Caso said the last-minute cancelation caused several problems for PRC.
“The Pasadena Republican Club president had to scramble to find an alternate location for the event, and I’m amazed that they did so,” he said. “Then she had to stand out in front of the Maxwell House to redirect traffic to the University Club of Pasadena, the new location, so she never got to the event herself.”
The University Club charged PRC $500 and not all PRC members were able to make it to the new venue. The complaint stated that “attendance at the event at the University Club was one-third below average attendance.”
Elissa Barrett, WJC’s current executive director, declined to comment for this story.
“We are consulting with legal counsel and cannot make any further comment at this time,” Barrett wrote in an email in response to a request for comment from Chirlin.
Earlier, Barrett reportedly wrote in response to questions from Pasadena Now, “When this matter arose more than 18 months ago, we believed that a fair and mutual accommodation had been reached. We have heard nothing from the plaintiff since then. We are disappointed that the plaintiff chose not to contact us before pursuing litigation, especially given the centrality of conflict resolution to our mission. The Western Justice Center empowers people to resolve conflicts and to address forms of bias that often underlie those conflicts.”
Caso acknowledged that PRC did not try to contact WJC to resolve the situation before pursuing litigation but argued that they didn’t need to do so.
“There’s no requirement to contact,” Caso said. “Basically, what [WJC] did is they gave the money back for the contract, the $190. That’s all that they did. They didn’t apologize, they didn’t say they wouldn’t do it again, they didn’t open up the facility and they didn’t promise to obey the Constitution.”
Caso said the city is also responsible because it gives WJC “the authority to rent the [Maxwell House] out, but is not providing guidance or supervision at all. Just like the city can’t delegate it to an employee and not provide any oversight. It is city property, so the Western Justice Center is operating on express city authority as to how to do the rentals.”
On KPCC’s “AirTalk with Larry Mantle,” Eastman said that if the city were to rent the Maxwell House out as a public forum, “there’s no question constitutionally it would be required to lease it out without discriminating on the basis of viewpoint. The real question is, by signing a dollar-a-month lease, can it avoid those constitutional duties and pass the buck to a nonprofit organization to do the discriminating for it? I don’t believe it can do so.
“The Western Justice Center has some decisions it’s going to have to make,” he continued. “If they want to continue to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint, they can’t do that with sweetheart deals using publicly owned facilities. If they want to continue serving as an agent of the city, renting out this spectacular facility for community organizations’ meetings, then they have to comply with the Constitution just like the city does.”
PRC is seeking a declaration that WJC and the city of Pasadena “violated the free speech and religious rights of [PRC] and its members” and that they “acted with malice, oppression and wanton and intentional disregard for the law.”
PRC is also seeking an injunction prohibiting the city of Pasadena from “allowing [WJC] to decide which organizations may or may not hold events at city-owned property” and prohibiting the WJC or any of its agents from “discriminating against organizations in the use of city-owned facilities based on the viewpoint of the speaker or the religious viewpoint or affiliation of the speaker.”
PRC is also seeking damages for “emotional distress suffered by members of the [PRC]” and punitive damages against WJC for “action with malice, oppression and wanton disregard for the law in engaging political viewpoint and religious belief discrimination,” as well as attorneys’ fees.
“The main thing we’d like to see is that the Western Justice Center not have the opportunity to continue to violate the Constitution, that this go over to the city or some other mechanism so we can ensure that the Constitution gets obeyed,” said Caso. “One alternative of the relief that we’re asking for is that the court order Pasadena to take over the task of deciding who can and cannot use the property, rather than the Western Justice Center.”
No court hearings have been scheduled for the case yet, but Caso expects the first one to happen in January or February.
“We were just served [Monday, Dec. 3] and are reviewing the complaints,” Lisa Derderian, the city’s public information officer, wrote in an email in response to a request for comment from the city.
The complaint alleged that by waiting until the last minute to cancel PRC’s event, “Chirlin, acting on behalf of [WJC] and the city of Pasadena, sought to ensure that the event could not be held at all and to impose the maximum level of inconvenience for [PRC]. These actions constitute willful and wanton misconduct. As a retired California judge, Chirlin is presumably aware of the provisions of the United States Constitution and was therefore aware that the action she took on behalf of [WJC] was unconstitutional.”
Eastman said on “AirTalk” that WJC should have known better.
“The folks on the Western Justice Center board, including the executive director who did this, are judges or former judges,” Eastman told Mantle. “They ought to have known their constitutional obligations.