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A.N. v. Upper Perkiomen School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 10, 2017

A.N., a Minor, By and Through His Parents Martha and John Niziolek, Plaintiff,


          TUCKER, C.J.

         The instant action arises out of Plaintiff's allegations that his free speech rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments were violated when Defendants disciplined him for his out-of-school social media post. Presently before the Court are Plaintiff A.N.'s Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 2), requesting that the Court, among other things, require Defendants to readmit him to school immediately, and Defendants' Response in Opposition thereto (Doc. 9). Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions and the arguments presented to the Court during the evidentiary hearing held on January 3, 2017, and for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED.


         A. The Mash-Up: A.N.'s Speech

         Plaintiff A.N. is a 15-year-old student who attends school in the Upper Perkiomen School District (“School District”). (Pl.'s Mot. ¶ 4.) Defendants are the School District, Dr. Alexis McGloin, the School District Superintendent, Dr. Sean Arney, the School District Assistant Superintendent, and Dr. Robert Carpenter, the Upper Perkiomen High School Principal. Defendants seek to expel A.N. for his mash-up[1] video of Evan[2] and Pumped Up Kicks, [3] posted on Instagram, a social networking website. (Pl.'s Mot. ¶ 5.)

         Evan is a video distributed by Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization led by family members of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The video is a public service announcement about recognizing the potential warning signs of teen gun violence. The nearly two-and-a-half-minute video seemingly follows the story of a teen boy, Evan, and a teen girl, who carve missives to each other on a library desk. Halfway through the video, a group of high school students are seen signing yearbooks in a gymnasium. There, the couple discover each other's identity because the teen girl recognizes Evan's handwriting after he signs another student's yearbook with the message, “See you next year Evan.” Officially meeting for the first time, Evan and the teen girl chuckle and converse while a silhouetted student in the background appears in the doorway.

         The student in the background drops a duffel bag and cocks a semiautomatic rifle. The students in the gymnasium scream and run. The video fades to black. The video then plays back the story of Evan and the teen girl, but this time refocuses the viewer on the silhouetted student who had been in the background throughout the story. This playback highlights the overlooked potential signs of school violence.

         Pumped Up Kicks is a song by the group, Foster the People, that describes a young man's homicidal thoughts. The lyrics to the song include:

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks You'd better run, better run, out run my gun All the other kids with the pumped up kicks You'd better run, better run, faster than my bullet All the other kids with the pumped up kicks You'd better run, better run, out run my gun All the other kids with the pumped up kicks You'd better run, better run, faster than my bullet

(Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Defs.' Ex. 3.)

         A.N.'s mash-up involved only a portion of Evan, starting at the scene in which the students were in the gymnasium signing yearbooks. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 28:2-28:14.) A.N. then overlaid the song Pumped Up Kicks to the clip where the screen faded to black after the silhouetted student entered the gymnasium and readied his semiautomatic rifle. Id. Plaintiff alleges that his mash-up contained no specific reference to any Upper Perkiomen school, nor did it contain any specifically threatening language. (Pl.'s Mot. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff contends that 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. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 26:16-27:5.)

         B. A.N.'s Post on a Private Social Media Page

         According to Plaintiff, he and two of his friends created a private account on Instagram and named the account “upperperkiscool.” (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 20:11-21:11.) Plaintiff characterized the account as a “vigilante” group to “make fun” of others. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 22:22-23:12.) He did not use his real name and used an unknown child's photograph as his profile picture because he wanted his posts from the private Instagram page to remain anonymous. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 24:23-25:7.) The followers of the private Instagram group were predominately School District students. (Defs.' Mem. 3.)

         On December 4, 2016, at approximately 8:00 p.m., A.N. used his personal device and his family's private home network to post the mash-up anonymously on the upperperkiscool Instagram page. (Pl.'s Mot. ¶ 7; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff captioned the mash-up, “See you next year, if you're still alive.”[4] (Defs.' Resp. ¶ 5.)

         1. A.N.'s Post: Viewers' Initial Reactions

         After posting the mash-up and the caption, other users, mostly School District students, expressed concerns that the video was a threat. (Pl.'s Mot. ¶ 8.) Two School District students commented directly on the post. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Defs.' Ex. 4.) One of the students also privately messaged A.N. with concerns and asked whether A.N.'s post was a “legit school shooting threat.” (Defs.' Mem. Ex. A.) A.N. responded under the post that the video was not a threat before eventually removing the video post from Instagram. (Pl.'s Mot. ¶ 8.) The video was on Instagram for less than two hours, but was viewed 45 times. (Id.) A.N. testified that prior to deleting the post on Instagram, he had already deleted the mash-up video completely from the device on which he created it.[5] (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 60:3-60:10; 61:18-25.)

         S.N., a parent of another School District student, saw the video and emailed Defendant Dr. Carpenter. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Defs.' Ex. 6.) In her email, S.N. noted that the post was alarming, and that it was edited to say, “see you next year. it [sic] is not a threat, you n*@#& need to chill.” (Id.) S.N. testified at the evidentiary hearing that she emailed Dr. Carpenter because she, and the students, did not know how to interpret the post. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 106:1-106:7.)

         J.M., a parent of another School District student, testified that her child showed her a screenshot of the post that read, “see you tomorrow.” J.M. said the screenshot of the post was “alarming” and that she called the Pennsylvania State Police after viewing the screenshot at around 8:30 p.m. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 112:12-113:19.) She testified that the state police arrived at her house at around midnight. J.M.'s child showed the state police a separate screenshot of A.N.'s post, which read “see you next year if you are still alive.” (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 115:25- 118:7.)

         2. A.N.'s Post: School District's Reactions

         A state police officer called Dr. Carpenter and left a voicemail at around 2:00 a.m. concerning a report that a threat had been made against the School District on an anonymous Instagram account. (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 9.) Within minutes, Dr. Carpenter returned the officer's call, and the officer sent Dr. Carpenter a screenshot of the Instagram account. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 122:1-124:19.) Dr. Carpenter then notified Defendant Dr. McGloin. (Defs.' Mem. 3.) During this time, Dr. Carpenter discovered S.N.'s email in his email account. Dr. Carpenter and others used their database to identify the student in the upperperkiscool profile picture.

         They wrongly identified another student.

         Dr. McGloin testified that the police were unable to secure a warrant for the Instagram account because it was too early in the morning. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 142:24-143:20.) She also testified that it was impossible to determine whether the threat was real because the poster was anonymous and she could not identify the student in the picture. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 145:17- 146:3.) In the early morning of December 5, 2016, Dr. McGloin made the final decision to close the School District. This decision was made after consulting with Dr. Carpenter, working through the night with law enforcement, considering the investigating officer's opinion, reviewing the police report, and remaining unable to identify the source of the “threat” and “potential targets.” (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 144:2-25; Defs.' Mem. 3.) Upon cancelling classes in the School District, Dr. McGloin also cancelled all public school buses, and messaged all schools and parents of School District students. (Prelim. Inj. Hr'g Tr. 145:1-16.)

         3. A.N.'s ...

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