O.Z. v. Board of Trustees of Long Beach Unified School Dist., 2008 WL 4396895 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 9, 2008)
While school was out of session for spring break, seventh grader O.Z. collaborated with a classmate to make a slide show video dramatizing the murder of the students’ English teacher. Though O.Z. says she did not intend to share the slide show to anyone outside her home, she posted the video to YouTube. A couple months later, while doing a vanity search on YouTube, the English teacher encountered the video. Naturally distressed by the work, the teacher notified school authorities. Administrators suspended O.Z. and transferred her to a different school for her eighth grade year.
O.Z. filed suit and sought a preliminary injunction requiring the school district to re-enroll her at her former school. She argued that the slide show was protected speech under the First Amendment, and that the school’s discipline for it was unconstitutional. The court denied the motion for preliminary injunction.
In evaluating the likelihood of O.Z.’s success on her First Amendment claim, the court applied the standard set forth in Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Comm. School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). The Tinker test provides that discipline over student speech is appropriate if school officials reasonably conclude that the speech will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”
O.Z. argued that the slide show was merely a joke and not a true threat. But the court found that the school could reasonably forecast substantial disruption of school activities given the violent language and unusual photos comprising the video slide show. Further, the decision to transfer O.Z. served not only to discipline her, but to protect the safety of the teacher.
The fact that O.Z. created the slide show outside of school was of little import in the circumstances. Comparing the present situation with Wisniewski v. Board of Educ. of Weedsport Cent. School Dist., 494 F.3d 34 (2nd Cir. 2007) and other cases involving off-campus conduct, the court found that the slide show created a foreseeable risk of disruption within the school. Such a finding was no doubt influenced by the ability of social media platforms like YouTube to facilitate wide distribution of content.