Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Court of Appeal:
Anti-SLAPP Order Is Upheld in Case Related to Gag Video Prepared by Candidate for President Of Student Body Depicting Him as Saving Victims From Harm By Muslim Terrorists
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal has affirmed the partial granting of an anti-SLAPP motion in an action against a woman who criticized a school district for allowing a boy to serve as high school president despite a campaign video he posted depicting him, in jest, heroically rescuing fellow students from supposed Muslim terrorists.
In the video, he proclaimed: “Vote for me and I will protect you from ISIS.”
Thursday’s unpublished opinion by Presiding Justice Barbara J.R. Jones of Div. Five stems from a teenager’s attempt at humor that sparked not only a local brouhaha in the Contra Costa County town of Danville, a suburb in which the San Ramon Valley High School is located, but litigation at the state and federal levels and major news media attention in the Bay Area.
A February 2017 video—in which two students who were practicing Muslims portrayed the terrorists—was denounced by some as insensitive, and the candidate, then 17, had it removed from YouTube the morning after it was posted, and rendered an apology, in writing, two days later. He was elected president, but the school declared that he was barred him from assuming that office in the next school year, yanked him from the post he then held as junior class president, and expelled him from the Leadership Class.
Writ Petition Denied
A writ petition was filed by him in Contra Costa Superior Court in Nathaniel Yu v. San Ramon Valley Unified School District in an effort to compel the district to rescind its actions. A hearing was held on April 26.
Judge Judith S. Craddick denied relief, saying:
“Petitioner has not met the requirements for writ relief and the Court cannot grant the petition as presented. However, it appears the District made its decisions without fully considering whether or not Petitioner’s First Amendment constitutional rights had been violated. Thus an issue to be resolved is whether the video constituted protected speech and whether or not Respondent’s disciplinary action violated Petitioner’s 1st Amendment constitutional rights.”
She suggested that he file a civil rights action. Nathaniel Yu’s parents, Leilanie and David Yu, advised the school district that they would be filing such an action in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The school district acquiesced, restoring Nathaniel Yu’s leadership status and confirming that he would become student body president in the fall. That’s when Karen Pearce, mother of the 2016-17 school president, entered the picture.
On her Facebook page, she posted, in part:
“Initially the boy was not allowed to be president. Parents sued. Parents refused to have their son apologize or take any responsibility for a dreadful decision.
“AND I heard from students that parents changed their (losing) lawsuit to a freedom of speech suit and asked for big $$$ DISTRICT caved!!!! Gave in rather than stand up for all the principles they expect our kids to learn and exhibit. Boy returns tomorrow as new [student body] President. UNBELIEVABLE!!”
She went on to comment:
“There is a Board meeting on Tuesday. It would be awesome to have a strong show of support and speakers to speak on our Leadership program’s behalf. The reinstatement of this student is a blatant disrespect to rules, in general, and his video that mocked Muslims was sufficient to disqualify the student from the campaign. This situation is not just a HS thing. The outcome is precedent for all sorts of unfair behavior.”
Pearce posted remarks of a like nature on Instagram.
Motion to Strike
Karen Pearce is seen on the NBC station in San Francisco telling a reporter why she opposed the action of a school district in reversing its original decision to bar a boy from becoming student body president based on a campaign video depicting him saving fellow students from supposed Muslim terrorists. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday affirmed an anti-SLAPP order in her favor in an action brought by the student and his parents over her postings on Facebook and Instagram.
The Yus sued Pearce over her comments, and she filed an anti-SLAPP motion.
Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Steven K. Austin on April 26, 2018, granted the motion as to the son’s claims and granted it as to his parents’ claims except as to the “portion of the Facebook post where Defendant stated that N.Y.’s parents ‘refused to have their son apologize or take responsibility for a dreadful decision’ ” and the “portion of the Instagram post where Defendant stated that N.Y.’s parents ‘refused to have their son apologize/take responsibility for a poor decision.’ ”
In her opinion affirming Austin’s order, Jones found that the first prong of the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure §425.16—speech in a public forum on a matter of public interest—was met, and declared that the second prong, inability of the plaintiff to show a probability of prevailing on the merits, was also satisfied.
She said, as to the second prong:
“The court determined Pearce’s characterization of the campaign video as racially insensitive and offensive, and mocking of Muslims, were statements of opinion, premised on the true fact that the video involved Muslims. Plaintiffs challenge this conclusion. They claim the statements imply a false assertion of fact because the ‘video was a James Bond spoof, nothing more.’ We disagree. In the video, N.Y. portrays a hero who saves a student from being kidnapped from a ‘radical group’ of Muslims brandishing imitation firearms, and says voting for him…‘will protect you from ISIS.’…Students found the video offensive. Pearce’s statements were statements of opinion that did not imply a provably false assertion of fact.”
Jones found other contentions by the appellants without merit.
Reflecting on the ruckus that the video caused, Jones noted:
“The social media posts ‘created media frenzy,’ and ‘[n]eighborhood discussions on sites like...Nextdoor.com got so heated that Nextdoor.com had to completely shut down the threads.’ Students staged a walkout to protest the district’s decision to reinstate N.Y. Over 140 district employees signed a letter criticizing the district for reversing its decision and presented the letter at a school board meeting.”
There was newspaper and television coverage.
The news anchor on the NBC station in San Francisco on May 19, 2017, led into a report by saying:
“Is it free speech or hate speech? A video reportedly mocking Muslims, riddled with fake guns and racial slurs, used as part of a student election in the East Bay.
“Now the student that shot that video is suing the school, as other parents question why he wasn’t more harshly punished….And the school district reportedly reinstated that teen who shot the video as student body president?”
An anchor on the ABC station in San Francisco said that night that “[t]he student posted a racially insensitive video against Muslims.”
While some were appalled by the video, others were outraged by what they viewed as the district’s over-reaction. When the parents launched their legal efforts, they mounted a “Go Fund Me” page on the Internet, hoping to garner $25,000 to defray costs of legal representation, and within six days, took in more than $27,000.
Jones’s opinion came in Yu v. Pearce, A154761.
Litigation in the federal court continues. Under an order filed Wednesday, Nathaniel Yu is authorized to file a fifth amended complaint, though his claims have been, for the most part, gutted by successive rulings.
Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company