Dan Siegel becomes point man for KPFA backers in Free Speech dispute
Thirty years after sparking a notorious march to take over a vacant filed in Berkeley known as People’s Park, attorney Dan Siegel is leading the fight to save a public radio institution often touted as the people’s voice.
Siegel, now senior partner of Oakland’s Siegel & Yee, is representing a group of KPFA supporters in their fight against the Pacifica Foundation, which governs KPFA and its four progressive sister stations across the nation.
Last month Pacifica seized the community-supported station, a source of alternative news and leftist opinion where Siegel once aired his views as student body president of the University of California, Berkeley.
The foundation accused employees of breaching an agreement not to speak publicly about an internal dispute over Pacifica’s tightening control of the station. The foundation replaced regular programming with archived material and placed all workers on paid, involuntary leave.
The protests and demonstrations haven’t let up since.
Once again, Siegel finds himself in the center of marches, fiery rhetoric and hippie ideals in a sometimes festive revival of a bygone era—with one very notable exception.
“What it feels like is a ’60s demonstration” said Siegel, 54. “What’s missing is that it’s not being covered by KPFA.”
As the demonstrations continue and talks with a federal mediator inch forward, activists are hoping a related class action filed by Siegel on their behalf will give them some leverage.
Adelson v. Pacifica Foundation, 814461-0, filed July 16 in Alameda County Superior Court, seeks an injunction to stop Pacifica from removing the power of local boards to name national board members.
Historically, local boards from the foundation’s five radio stations would name two of their own to sit on the national board.
Under the new rules, only national board members appoint new members — a structure Siegel says results in “perpetual self-perpetuation.”
“In order to seize control of the organization, they pushed these bylaw changes through that essentially remove any decisions they make from review by the station boards,” he said.
“Now they can do essentially whatever they want, which is remarkable for an organization like this.”
Dan Rapaport, an attorney for Pacifica, said the board had no choice but to make the change after the Corp. for Public Broadcasting said such dual membership violates its rules.
“Unless the bylaws were changed, they were going to lose over $1 million in funding,” he said. “That seems like kind of a no-brainer.”
But Siegel argues a compromise could have been reached, such as local board members simply resigning their local posts once appointed to the national board.
Although the bylaw change may seem unrelated to the protests, KPFA supporters say it’s at the core of the current dispute: Without it, they say, the situation would never have been allowed to deteriorate to its current state.
“As far as we can tell it, this is the only legal means of preventing Pacifica from asserting unique control of the institution,” said plaintiff David Adelson, acting chairman of the Los Angeles local advisory board for KPFK
The lawsuit also alleges violations of California’s corporations code and unfair business practices.
Listeners who contribute do so under the representation that the station practices free speech and other ideals, Siegel said.
“The direction management is taking is exactly contrary to that,” he said.
The potential implications of the dispute “can’t be underestimated” – on its impacts on free speech and nonprofit law, according to F. Peter Franck, a Tiburon intellectual property and entertainment lawyer and former president of the Pacifica Foundation.
“It is the responsibility of the board of directors of a California charitable corporation to carry out the purposes of its founders,” he said.
“When the leadership is no longer doing that, I think they forfeit their right to be in leadership of the organization.”
But Rapaport calls the unfair business allegations unfounded and criticizes the entire complaint as baseless.
“It’s got more holes than Swiss cheese,” said Rapaport, with Oakland’s Wendel Rosen Black & Dean. “It’s kind of flawed beginning on Page 1 and ending on Page 11.
Papaport condemns the protests that have erupted, saying Siegel an his clients should distance themselves from the rowdier element of the dispute.
“This should be resolved in the court of law or in the court of public opinion,” he said. “It shouldn’t be resolved on Martin Luther King Way… I’m sure [Siegel] would agree.”
Not likely. It was Siegel who, as student body president, stood on the podium in the spring of 1969 and urged protesters to “go take the park.” One person was killed and 40 injured in the resulting melee over People’s Park.
Siegel was later arrested for inciting a riot – although that didn’t deter him from giving more speeches on anti-war and free speech causes. He was later acquitted on the incitement charge.
His activism moved from the podium to the courtroom in 1972 when he had to fight allthe way to the California Supreme Court to earn a license to practice law.
The State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners refused to certify Siegel as morally fit to become a lawyer, although he had graduated from Boalt Hall and passed the bar exam.
With the help of a group of liberal lawyers, Siegel petitioned the state Supreme Court, which eventually voted 6-1 to reverse to action. Siegel v. Committee of Bar Examiners, 10Cal.3d 156 (1973).
Throughout his career, he has not shied from the public eye or the public sector.
He made a run for state attorney general in 1982 with the Peace and Freedom Party.
In 1987 he was hired as chief of complex litigation in the San Francisco city attorney’s office and later worked for the Oakland school district. Last November he won a seat on the embattled Oakland school board.
Now in private practice, Siegel specializes in higher-education employment issues, including sexual harassment and tenure disputes.
He was brought into the KPFA issue because of his long history of activism and ties to the community, Adelson said. A legal fund has been set up to pay for his services.
Larry Bensky, a longtime KPFA radio program host, calls him the perfect legal point man for their battle, which he says goes beyond protecting public radio: “I think it’s important for free speech in the United States,” he said.
Siegel says he welcomes the opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds to fight for this icon of the free speech.
“The irony,” he said, “is that KPFA is now the target.”