The San Ramon Valley Unified School District has settled a free-speech lawsuit involving a former student who was disciplined for his part in the creation of a video that at the time had been described as Islamophobic.
As a part of the settlement, the district will award former San Ramon Valley High School student body president Nathaniel Yu $665,000 and will apologize for “negative effects, disruption and emotional distress” suffered by Yu and his family resulting from discipline inflicted on him from the district.
“The landmark settlement figure sends a strong message to public school officials throughout the country that the First Amendment prohibits them from censoring off-campus student speech that does not substantially disrupt school activities,” Frank LoMonte, First Amendment scholar and former Student Press Law Center executive director, said in a statement on Tuesday. “This is especially true in instances such as this where the speech was made on a weekend, entirely off-campus, and with no school resources.”
According to the lawsuit, the school district violated Yu’s constitutional rights under the First Amendment when it disciplined him for his role in creating what Yu's representatives called "a James Bond-style parody video," back in February 2017, during his campaign for student body president.
DanvilleSanRamon.com attempted to obtain a copy of the video when the controversy first arose in 2017 but was unsuccessful. Yu's legal team declined a request to release the video on Tuesday.
SRVUSD leaders had not responded to a request for comment as of late afternoon Tuesday.
Court documents do include an exhibit with proposed verbiage for Superintendent Rick Schmitt's forthcoming public apology.
"We understand that events that followed were not easy for you and your family. We want to formally acknowledge that, despite various reports on social media and in the press that described the video as 'hate speech,' we do not believe the contents of the video constituted 'hate speech,'" Schmitt's proposed letter reads, in part.
"We further believe that the video did not bully, harass, discriminate against, or threaten anyone. Finally, the video did not portray any sexual content. The district recognizes and regrets the negative consequences associated with mischaracterizations regarding you and the content of the video," the letter added.
The lawsuit describes the video as depicting Yu -- who was a 17-year-old junior at the time -- as a "James Bond-type hero" who rescued a person kidnapped by two members of an "extremist group" who were attempting to force the victim to participate in a video game competition.
The video was created off-campus at a friend's house on Feb. 4, and according to Yu's attorneys, was an improvised project where "each participant individually developed their characters, improvised their lines without any prior review or consultation, and brought their own props to the off-campus filming location."
The group did not use school property or equipment to create the video, which did not mention SRVHS or the leadership class, and did not feature the school's or leadership class’s name, logo or other indicia.
After uploading the video, Yu was alerted by a fellow student that some individuals may find the video offensive, resulting in Yu promptly requesting that the student who edited the video remove it from YouTube. According to the lawsuit the video was taken down hours prior to when students began casting their ballots on the Feb. 7 election and had only reached approximately 30 views before it was removed.
Yu would go on to win the most votes in the election, but he was initially disqualified from holding the post and removed from the school's leadership class because of the video. However district officials would later reinstate him as ASB president.
"(Yu) and four of his friends stated that the parody’s purpose was to entertain and was not intended to threaten or demean any person, race, or culture," the suit read.
Afterward the district reversed its discipline, but Yu's representatives said the teen continued to face retaliation and public disparagement from other students and district employees -- citing in the lawsuit examples of teachers alerting media, local politicians, local and national Muslim organizations and other officials that Yu mocked and disparaged Muslims.
Another example cited in the lawsuit was two occurrences where his designated parking spot was vandalized with language that mocked his Catholic faith.
“No one should be subjected to what my family and I have been forced to endure. As a child of immigrants, I am constantly reminded that we cannot take our civil rights for granted. We must continue our fight to preserve these rights at all costs,” Yu said in a statement.
Last November, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney ruled against the school district’s motion to dismiss the case according to Yu's representatives, rejecting SRVUSD's argument that the video constituted school-sponsored speech. Soon thereafter the district proposed to settle after being ordered to release more than 12,000 documents related to the case.
A portion of the most related documents have been released online by Yu's legal team for additional review by the public.
“It was an honor and a privilege to represent Nathaniel and his family in this important First Amendment lawsuit. The defendants punished him for the parody video because they found it ‘offensive’ and ‘inappropriate.’ The First Amendment, however, prohibits government officials from punishing speakers for speech simply because they subjectively disapprove of its content,” added Yu's lead attorney James Carlos McFall, a Dallas partner at Jackson Walker LLP.
As a part of the settlement, in addition to the cash payout the district is also obligated to post an apology to the school website under the “NEWS” tab within five business days of the filing of the joint motion for stipulated dismissal.
That dismissal document was filed in federal court on Tuesday, according to Yu's attorneys. The public apology had not been posted on the SRVUSD website as of early Tuesday evening.