High school junior sues school district for Free Speech infringement, wins settlement

When Nathaniel Yu posted an allegedly inappropriate video to YouTube and Twitter in 2017, San Ramon Valley High School revoked his right to serve as president of the Associated Student Body, despite having been elected to the position. After Yu filed a lawsuit in federal court, the high school reversed its decision and Yu held the leadership position throughout the 2017-18 school year. The lawsuit was resolved only in April 2020, when the school district settled, issuing a public apology and paying Yu $665,000. 

Key Player

Nathaniel Yu was a junior at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, in the San Francisco Bay Area, when he posted an allegedly racially insensitive video to YouTube for his Associated Student Body (ASB) campaign. 

Further Details

On Feb. 7, 2017, Yu posted a parody-style video to YouTube as part of his ASB presidential campaign  and shared it to his Twitter account, according to the Danville San Ramon, a local online news source. The video, removed just hours later, depicted two Muslim students playing members of an extremist Islamic terror group who kidnapped Yu and forced him to compete in a video game tournament. One scene in the video alluded to a sexual act, and one of the characters used what appeared to be a real firearm as a prop, according to the East Bay Times.

In light of the video, school staff decided to bar Yu from serving as student body president. 

Yu proceeded to bring legal action against the school district in state court on grounds that his Free Speech rights had been violated.

According to court documents, the school district’s attorneys said, “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.” The Times also reported that the San Ramon Valley Unified School District argued that this justified prohibiting Yu from becoming student body president. Meanwhile, Yu and his legal team contended that the video was merely “meant to be a parody of action videos,” according to the Times. 

In May 2017, after Yu filed suit, the school district reinstated him as ASB president in an attempt to avoid further legal action.  Yu held the position throughout the 2017-18 school year. About 200 students at the school walked out in protest against the district’s decision to reinstate him, reports the Times, and more than 50 people attended a school board meeting to speak out against him. Yu told The Mercury News the school district had overreacted to the video and that he and his family were forced to go “into hiding” due to the death threats he received. 

Yu continued to pursue a lawsuit beyond his junior year.  His attorneys sued the school district in federal court for infringing upon his Free Speech rights and for the “negative effects, disruption, and emotional distress” the issue caused Yu and his family, according to the Danville San Ramon. Yu’s attorneys maintained that the school district should not have originally barred him from serving as ASB president, because the video was made off campus and did not involve any school equipment. 

In November 2019, the school district asked U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney to dismiss the case, but she refused to do so, “rejecting [the district’s] argument that the video constituted school-sponsored speech,” the Danville San Ramon reported. The San Francisco Chronicle also reported that Chesney said Yu’s allegations against the school district may constitute both a violation of his Free Speech and racial discrimination. 

In a public statement about the lawsuit, Yu said he was a child of immigrants, and that his family’s history reminded him “that we cannot take our civil rights for granted.”


Yu reaches settlement with school district

On April 7, 2020, Yu and the San Ramon Valley Unified School District reached a settlement agreement, according to The Mercury News. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a lawyer for the district said the apology was not an admission that Yu’s Free Speech rights had been violated, but rather a statement of regret concerning the negative effects of the controversy surrounding the video.