A member of the Pasadena Board of Education who supported a vaccine mandate is threatening litigation over claims that her free speech rights have been violated by the board.
Attorney Dale Gronemeir said the free expression and freedom of speech rights of Board Member Tina Wu Fredericks were violated after she spoke out in support of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
“In a proceeding fraught with procedural irregularities, Board Members [Michelle Richardson] Bailey, [Jennifer Hall] Lee, and [Scott] Phelps attempted to chill Member [Wu] Fredericks’ outside expressive activities,” Gronemeir wrote in a letter that was sent to all board members and Superintendent Brian McDonald.
“Their method was to publicly shame Member [Wu] Fredericks as unethical because they disagreed with her constitutionally protected outside expressive activities advocating a PUSD vaccine mandate – a public health issue with immediate life-and-death consequences that is at the highest order of public interest protected by the constitutional expressive rights because of the current pandemic of the unvaccinated that especially threaten the life and health of PUSD’s vaccine-ineligible students who are under the age of 12,” the letter states.
According to district protocol, written opinions must be submitted to the superintendent and the board president before their publication.
The board collectively acts as the superintendent’s boss and the superintendent instructs staff.
Wu Fredericks raised the ire of several board members after she wrote several opinion pieces that appeared in local media outlets, including Pasadena Now, calling for a mandate that would require all staff to be vaccinated. She also appeared with Mayor Victor Gordo at a press conference expressing support for the vaccine mandate.
At a meeting in August, Fredericks was taken to task for the published pieces and for appearing at a press conference with Gordo.
According to the letter, Richardson Bailey asked that a review of the district’s code of ethics be placed on the board’s agenda for consideration.
“This type of thing is going to continue if the members don’t talk to each other more, being drag through the mud. My heart is broken by what I experienced this past week, and dismay that PUSD students are reading about the Board in the newspapers,” Richardson Bailey said.
She did not mention Wu Fredericks by name.
Hall Lee later claimed that actions taken on Aug. 9 damaged the board. Aug. 9 was the day that Wu Fredericks appeared at the press conference with Gordo to call upon PUSD to enact a vaccine mandate.
Hall Lee submitted a column to a media outlet that same month in which she wrote, “boards can be broken through partisan politics or, sometimes, not advisedly, board members may decide to ‘go it alone.’ These are alarming tactics because a fractured school board is low functioning and inhibits student achievement.”
It was not known if McDonald signed off on Hall Lee’s column. On Thursday, Hall Lee submitted an unrelated article to Pasadena Now.
Despite that reference in her column, some community members said it referred to Wu Fredericks. During the latter meeting, Hall Lee said board members shouldn’t call each other out.
“Not only were several members called out publicly this month but so was the superintendent,” she said. “We don’t tear down board members publicly, we don’t paint targets on them.”
Hall Lee also stated, “We don’t hold press conferences” and “to do so is to work aggressively with an agenda to break a school board.”
Although neither Richardson Bailey nor Hall Lee identified Wu Fredericks by name, Phelps did.
“I don’t feel that the integrity of myself and the merit of my work was recognized by Ms. Fredericks’ actions,” Phelps said.
“I don’t feel that at all. I don’t feel my integrity was respected. I don’t feel that the board member refrained from particular intention from the board. I don’t feel that was honored at all. And so that my objection is the organizing of attacks on individual board members, I don’t think it is in keeping with the code of ethics and the protocols.”
Gronomeier’s letter does not identify Board Members Patrick Cahalan, Kim Kenne, or Elizabeth Pomeroy as attempting to squelch Wu Fredericks’ free speech rights.
According to Gronomeier, Wu Fredericks will not pursue litigation if district officials “remedy the unconstitutional restrictions on her, her constituents, and the press’s outside expressive activities and her Equal Protection constitutional rights arising from the California Constitution” that are contained in several board protocols.
Gronomeier said the board has until Oct. 15 to meet his demands.
The mandate became an issue shortly after City Manager Steve Mermell required all city employees to be vaccinated.
Gordo later said the school district should institute a similar mandate, which prompted criticism from two board members.
Millions in voters-approved Measure J funds flow from the city to the district every year.
Phelps said he will not respond to the letter at this time.
“As it is a legal demand, as a matter of practice the district does not comment,” Phelps said.