A California student settled for $665,000 and apology from the San Ramon Valley Unified School District this week over a parody video he produced in 2017 to win student body president.
“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,’” SRVUSD Superintendent Rick Schmidt wrote in an apology obtained by The Mercury News.
The superintendent wrote the video “did not bully, harass, discriminate against or threaten anyone,” nor did it involve sexual content.
“The District recognizes and regrets the negative consequences associated with mischaracterizations regarding you and the content of the video,” Schmitt wrote.
The admission concludes a years-long lawsuit involving now 20-year-old college student Nathaniel You, who produced a “James Bond-style video” for Twitter in 2017 to promote his junior year campaign for student body president.
School district lawyer stressed to the San Francisco Chronicle that the apology is for Yu’s suffering, but the settlement doesn’t acknowledge the district violated his rights.
The video sparked a backlash online because it included armed students as “Muslim terrorists” and alleged sexual innuendo. Yu won the election, but San Ramon Valley High School officials labeled the video racist, stripped him of the title, and removed him from a leadership class. Officials eventually reversed course when Yu sued, and the teen continued to serve as student body president while pursuing the lawsuit.
In 2017, district officials claimed “the video makes repeated racist and insensitive references to Middle Eastern people, stereotyping them based on their dress, accents and language, names, manner of praying and religious dietary restrictions,” according to the lawsuit.
Yu told News the district violated his First Amendment rights by punishing him for the video, which triggered a broader backlash that put his family in danger.
“What happened was completely out of our imagination,” he said. “They blew it way out of proportion … I received death threats. It put my family into hiding, and it was a rough time for us.”
Despite the trying time, Yu finished his senior year as class president and is now in college.
“It’s been a very long fight,” he said. “ … I hope it provides a safeguard for students across the country for many more years to come.”
The controversial video involved a teen playing video games in his room before being kidnapped by two other Afghan teens. Scenes involved plastic toy guns, a fake electrocution, and Yu rescuing his classmates with a campaign promise to protect his constituents, the News reports.
“In November 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Maxine Chesney ruled against the school district’s motion to dismiss the case, rejecting an argument that the parody constituted school-sponsored speech, according to Yu’s attorneys,” the News reports.
“In December, the district and its legal team were ordered to release more than 12,000 pages of documents that Yu’s attorneys said were previously withheld. A settlement was soon proposed.”
SRVUSD agreed in the settlement Tuesday to pay Yu $665,000 for “negative effects, disruption, and emotional distress” officials created and to post an apology on the district’s website within a week.