Student Disciplined for Posting Threatening Mashup Video to Instagram–AN v. Upper Perkiomen School District

A.N. is a 15 year student at Upper Perkiomen High School (a distant suburb of Philadelphia). He mashed up part of the viral video “Evan,” a video about how we can easily overlook homicidal students, with the song “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, a jaunty song about a teenager’s homicidal thoughts. A.N. claimed he “created the mash-up because the signs of a school shooter were not ‘compelling evidence,’ and he believed that the original video deserved ridicule.”

He and 2 peers created an Instagram account “upperperkiscool” for the purported purpose of making fun of their classmates. The account didn’t reveal A.N.’s name. From his home, he posted the mashup video to the Instagram account with the caption “See you next year, if you’re still alive,” which he claimed was wordplay of a key line from the Evan video. The video was viewed 45 times in 2 hours before A.N. pulled it. In response to student and parent concerns that the video was a threat, the district superintendent decided to close the entire district the next day. The police investigated A.N. and decided not to pursue a criminal prosecution. Some background on the situation.

The district suspended A.N. and wants to expel him. The parents sued the district for violating A.N.’s free speech rights. The court denies the parents’ preliminary injunction request.

Unlike many other social media cases involving off-campus posting, in this case A.N.’s video clearly disrupted school:

After viewing A.N.’s post, two students immediately inquired about whether A.N.’s post was a threat. Additionally, a parent of a School District student sent an email to the school’s principal to notify him of the post because the parent did not know “how to interpret” it. Separately, a parent who saw a screenshot of A.N.’s post called the state police, who, after reviewing a screenshot of A.N.’s post, notified the school’s principal. As a result of A.N.’s speech, school officials belabored in the wee hours of the morning to determine the identity of the poster and discern whether the perceived threat was credible. There is no doubt that A.N.’s mash-up video posted on Instagram is the speech that caused a disruption.

The court further adds that the superintendent’s decision to shut down school seemed reasonable in light of concerns about school violence–and especially because the school had a fatal student-on-student shooting a couple of decades ago.

In general, we as a society should encourage mashups. The juxtaposition of two existing cultural artifacts (the Evan video has over 7M YouTube views; the Pumped Up Kicks video nearly a billion) can create new meaning and fresh insights. That’s especially true about sensitive and poorly understood topics like student violence. We benefit when teens speak out on this topic from their first-hand perspectives. Finally, I’ve often lamented that all too frequently we impose adult-level consequences on teenagers behaving like teens online.

Still, it’s hard to fault the district’s judgment or the court’s ruling. While the mashup might have been fine on its own, the caption “See you next year, if you’re still alive” combined with the mashup sure seemed like too much of a threat for the district to ignore. Though it’s easy to blame A.N., we might also conclude this was due to an unfortunate gap in our educational system. I wonder how we can teach teenagers (especially young teenage boys) to express themselves powerfully and creatively on topics on important social issues, but in a way that makes their commentary more clear and less threatening than A.N.’s post.

Case citation: A.N. v. Upper Perkiomen School District, 2017 WL 85387 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 10, 2017)

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