Parent group sues school district for records related to documentary on antisemitism

A scene from Eli Steele's documentary "Killing America."

Daily Post Staff Writer

A national parent group has sued the Sequoia Union High School District for allegedly withholding public records related to a student newspaper’s copyright takedown of a video from YouTube.

The M-A Chronicle had a video removed that used some of its videos from a board meeting on Jan. 17.

The video was a 38-minute documentary by filmmaker Eli Steele, called “Killing America,” which takes aim at the district’s decision to get rid of honors classes in the name of racial equity.

A group called Parents Defending Education sued the district on Thursday, claiming the district violated the California Public Records Act by refusing to turn over records related to the takedown.

The group included a letter from district spokesman Arther Wilkie in response to the records request: “The district believes that records created, held or used by students to develop material for the student newspaper, participate in a journalism class, or make editorial decisions about student publications are neither district records nor reflective of the ‘public’s business,’” Wilkie said on April 15.

In response, the group disagreed and said that the newspaper’s records are the district’s records.
“The requested records are inextricably intertwined with public business,” attorney Bradley Benbrook wrote. “The M-A Chronicle is a student newspaper at a public high school. Its activities are supported by public dollars. Indeed, the publication is part of the public-school curriculum, as students who work on the newspaper do so as part of ‘a journalism class.’”

Student reporters don’t have the same privileges as reporters who are employed by a news organization, Benbrook said.

“The school newspaper is merely a part of the curriculum,” he said.

Steele, who used to work for Fox News, debuted “Killing America” at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park on March 2.

Steele used footage filmed at board meetings by a student reporter without asking nor crediting the M-A Chronicle.

The newspaper’s editorial board sent Steele a cease-and-desist letter in April and had YouTube take the documentary down.

Some members of the community thought the student newspaper was a part of the documentary, the editorial board said on social media.

“The producers have every right to re-publish their documentary and trailer without the use of our media,” the editorial board wrote.

The editorial board said they filed the takedown notice without communicating with or being influenced by school administrators.

Steele said that his documentary is protected under copyright law. He posted the video on other websites after it was taken down on YouTube.

“These left-wing activists cannot stand dissent or opposition to the ideological order they seek to impose in our schools as well as our larger society,” Steele said on social media.

Two copyright experts asked by the Post said that Steele’s documentary is protected by a “fair use” provision in copyright law.

Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School, said that it’s “disappointing” to see a press outlet trying to stop documentaries from accurately documenting government hearings.

“I suspect the students are motivated by the apparently noxious politics of the filmmaker, but copyright isn’t the right tool/ I understand the desire for credit, but this is an effort to stop the dissemination of the video clips altogether,” Lemley said in an email.

Professor Tyler Ochoa, an expert in copyright law at Santa Clara University, said that “fair use” allows someone to use copyrighted material if it’s for news reporting, or for comment and criticism.
Parents Defending Education has a similar ideology as Steele.

“Activists have targeted public, private, and charter schools across the country with a campaign to impose ideologically driven curriculum with a concerning and often divisive emphasis on students’ group identities: race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender,” the group said on its website. “Couched in vague slogans about ‘social justice,’ the new curriculum divides our children into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ groups.”

The group’s lawsuit is the latest chapter in a battle at Sequoia Union High School District over race, heightened by the war in Gaza.

The district canceled 10 “advanced standing” and honors science classes, mainly affecting Menlo-Atherton High School and Woodside High School, after test scores in 2018 were particularly low among five student groups: English learners, students from poor families, students with disabilities, African-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

A group of parents and students is trying to get the honors classes back.

Ethnic Studies teacher Chloe Gentile-Montgomery has been in the middle of a debate about how the war in Israel is taught to students.

Parent Mihal Russ criticized a two-sentence slide that she presented about the Holocaust, which said Nazis killed Jewish people “because of their religion.”

Russ said the slide “minimizes what the Holocaust, an actual genocide, was.” Other parents said Gentile-Montgomery presented inaccurate maps and history about Israel.

Gentile-Montgomery said the slides were taken out of context, and teachers in the district started a petition backing her, saying that she has been the target of harassment in the form of threatening emails and posters placed on her classroom door.