PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Alarmed at one student’s school-shooting meme, the Upper Perkiomen School District closed its doors last week and suspended the student. Identifying himself now only by his initials, the 15-year-old has brought a federal complaint to block his possible expulsion.
A.N. filed the lawsuit Thursday, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 10 days after the mash-up video he shared with friends on Instagram stirred a controversy.
“See you next year if you’re still alive,” the caption of the video said, according to the complaint.
A.N. says he had been “moved” by a nonprofit’s viral-marketing efforts to prevent school shootings.
As part of a campaign called “Know the Signs,” the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise had released a video called “Evan” that garnered millions of views.
A.N. took a scene from the “Evan” – where a student comes in to a school gymnasium and racks the slide on automatic rifle – and overlaid it with the 2010 song “Pumped Up Kicks.”
Though stylized like a pop ballad, the lyrics of Foster the People’s breakthrough hit run darker, sharing the point of view of a troubled teen. “Outrun my gun,” the chorus croons.
A.N. notes that his video was only up for an hour in a private Instagram group when he changed the caption because other members began asking if it was a threat.
“It’s not a threat, you … need to chill,” the new caption said.
“It’s not a threat it’s a meme, calm down everyone,” A.N. added later.
A.N. removed the video after another hour.
Though it had been viewed just 45 times, A.N. says a member of the group had taken a screenshot and showed a parent, who in turn called the state police.
When he learned the next morning that there would be no school because of a “threat,” A.N. says he emailed the school superintendent Alexis McGloin to clear things up.
State troopers from the Reading barracks were at A.N.’s door later that morning, according to the complaint.
A.N. says the troopers believed him that he had not meant the video to be threatening and told the public that there had been a “misunderstanding.”
District officials warned A.N. that same afternoon, however, that he was being suspended for “terroristic threats.” The teen faces an expulsion hearing on Dec. 20.
A.N. notes that he is an honor student, with “no history of harassing, bullying or threatening other students.”
“Except for his current suspension and threatened expulsion, A.N. has never been disciplined for his behavior in school,” the complaint states.
Claiming that his mash-up video is protected under the First Amendment, A.N. says the school is defining “substantial disruption to the school environment” much more broadly than the law and binding precedent allow.
David Greene, the civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke to this in an interview Friday.
“The law, particularly in the Third Circuit, is pretty clear that a student can only be punished for off campus speech if that speech has a serious disruptive effect on campus, and even that’s probably stating it to lightly,” Greene said. “It requires some type of targeted disruption on campus.”
“It seems like the people who reacted to this … never actually saw the entire thing, only screenshots,” Greene added. “To the extent that what the complaint said happened is what happened, it seems like a meritorious First Amendment case.”
A.N. is represented by Bryn Mawr attorney Michael Raffaele.
Earlier this week on Dec. 13, A.N.’s school rolled out a new RAPTOR security system “designed to identify anyone who may compromise school safety,” according to a Facebook post by Sean Arney, assistant superintendent and one of defendants to A.N.’s suit.
Principal Robert Carpenter’s office referred a request for comment to the superintendent’s office. They did not return a request for comment.