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Professor to bear burden of failed suit against Orange County school district

March 21, 2009|Gale Holland

A community college professor who lost a lawsuit accusing an Orange County school board of illegally censoring a dissident board member now owes the district nearly $80,000 in attorney fees, the professor said Friday.

Richard McKee, who teaches chemistry at Pasadena City College, said he has had his wages garnished and had to borrow against his retirement as a result of his failed suit against the Orange Unified School District. He has delayed his retirement at least a year, he said.

"I love my job, I've always loved my job. If I had to be there another 10 years it wouldn't be negative," he said. "On the other hand, I think how many trips and cruises this money is equivalent to and it certainly is a downer."

McKee, the nonprofit group Californians Aware that McKee headed and Orange Unified board member Steve Rocco sued the district in 2006 after the other board members censured Rocco for disparaging a school principal during a public board meeting.

It also accused the board of violating Rocco's free speech rights and the state's Public Records Act by removing his criticism from a videotape of the meeting that was broadcast on a community cable channel.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Clay M. Smith ruled that just as Rocco had a right to state his opinion, fellow members had a right to register their displeasure at his comments. The board had a right to edit the videotape because a recording of the full meeting was available to the public, the ruling said.

An appeals court upheld a finding that McKee's suit violated California's anti-SLAPP law, which protects against claims that seek to stifle public discourse. Winners under the SLAPP statute, which stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are awarded attorney fees.

The seat held by Rocco, a Santa Ana resident who has sparked controversy since his 2004 election, was eliminated by redistricting last year, a district official said. Californians Aware agreed that he would not be held liable in the lawsuit, leaving McKee responsible for the full award.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the nonprofit, said Friday that Rocco could be described as "eccentric," but said it was important to defend his right as an elected official to speak out freely. McKee had not sought a monetary award in his suit.

Michael Travis, who represented Orange Unified, said the school board repeatedly tried to settle the suit, but McKee refused. Travis also said the fee award was closer to $70,000.

McKee is a longtime advocate for open government who has filed more than two dozen lawsuits to enforce the state's so-called sunshine laws.

McKee said he is now paying for living out his principles.

"Rocco certainly was an irritation. I was at the meetings, I saw his antics," he said. "At the same time, he was elected, and he had an obligation to express concerns about people who worked at Orange Unified and decisions they made, and that needed to be protected."

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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