Jackson Walker attorneys James Carlos McFall, Edwin Buffmire, Eric Wong, and Maggie I. Burreson obtained the largest known recovery in a student speech case in United States history.
The Firm’s client, Nathaniel Yu, the former student body president of a California Bay Area public high school, was punished for a short video on YouTube parodying a James Bond film to promote his election campaign.
The defendant school district and a number of district employees stripped Nathaniel of his class presidency, among other formal punishment, for over three months. Later, district employees spread misinformation about the video that led to Nathaniel and his family receiving death threats.
In spring 2019, the Jackson Walker team took over the case and secured critical evidence establishing that the school officials censored the parody because they disapproved of its content.
“More than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court famously held that students do not ‘shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,’” said lead counsel Dallas partner James Carlos McFall. “Nathaniel filed this lawsuit because school officials punished him for off-campus speech that they found offensive. But the First Amendment safeguards speech even when government officials disapprove.”
McFall also noted: “The defendants here ultimately admitted that Nathaniel’s speech did not substantially disrupt school activities, which is the constitutional test.”
“Freedom of student speech is a critical part of limiting the government’s regulation of speech. The Supreme Court hasn’t addressed off-campus student speech in the era of social media, making this case very challenging,” added Dallas partner Edwin Buffmire, a former law clerk to Judge Richard R. Clifton of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who assisted McFall in the case. “But we were confident because Nathaniel’s speech didn’t threaten violence or harass other students—types of disruption courts may embrace.”
The settlement followed a November 2019 ruling by U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The Court rejected the school district’s argument that the parody was “school-sponsored” speech.
“The Court’s refusal to dismiss the case was not surprising because, as Nathaniel’s attorneys argued, Hazelwood’s school-sponsored speech exception is narrow,” said prominent First Amendment scholar Professor Frank LoMonte, who serves as Director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “Nathaniel’s speech had none of the necessary characteristics to qualify as school-sponsored speech.”
Professor LoMonte previously served as the Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center, an independent, non-partisan nonprofit that protects the press freedom rights of student journalists and their advisers.
LoMonte added: “To the defendants’ credit, they publicly stipulated that the result embraces the First Amendment in the current era of digital technology and social media, especially in the educational setting. The landmark settlement sends a strong message to public school officials throughout the country that the First Amendment prohibits them from censoring off-campus student speech that does not substantially disrupt school activities.”
“The landmark settlement sends a strong message to public school officials throughout the country that the First Amendment prohibits them from censoring off-campus student speech that does not substantially disrupt school activities.”
The Jackson Walker team was honored to fight this important First Amendment battle on Nathaniel’s behalf along with local counsel Jon Fetterly, Katherine Keating, Doug Alvarez, and Tom Kinzinger of Bryan Cave Leighton Peisner LLP, who were integral to obtaining the successful result.
Meet Our Team
James Carlos McFall’s practice focuses on media, sports, entertainment, and complex commercial litigation, including cases of alleged fraud, tortious interference, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and theft of trade secrets. In First Amendment media and entertainment litigation, McFall has represented TV networks, newspapers, journalists, internet publishers, film directors, and producers in cases of libel, defamation, and misappropriation of likeness in California and Texas. He also has significant experience litigating disputes and arguing motions under the journalist’s shield law, the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), state open records and meetings laws, and state anti-SLAPP statutes.
Edwin Buffmire represents clients in antitrust, white collar criminal, class action, and other sensitive investigations and complex disputes nationwide. In his practice, Buffmire has successfully recovered millions for merchants in price-fixing litigation, defended media clients against a putative nationwide class asserting conspiracy allegations, secured two full jury verdicts for defendants in RICO trials, obtained dismissals of three class action lawsuits in Arkansas, and handled charges of healthcare fraud and federal wire fraud.
Eric Wong is a litigation, media law, and intellectual property attorney who routinely briefs and argues numerous substantive and procedural issues in state and federal court at both the trial and appellate level. Wong devotes a significant portion of his practice to counseling news and entertainment clients, and has represented a variety of media entities in access, copyright, trademark, defamation, and other disputes.
Maggie I. Burreson is a litigation attorney with experience assisting attorneys in legal research, drafting and reviewing legal memoranda, and assisting in drafting pleadings. Before law school, Burreson developed her interest in First Amendment law as an intern for the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, D.C., where she assisted in conducting research for amicus curiae briefs and tracked national and state legislation affecting religious freedom.
Texas born and raised more than a century ago, Jackson Walker continues to advance the world of business by helping companies of all sizes navigate today’s increasingly complex, interconnected legal landscape. With more than one-third of the Firm’s more than 400 attorneys practicing litigation, JW has one of the largest trial practices in the Southwest and has been recognized as a National Tier 1-ranked “Best Law Firm” in the area of First Amendment litigation for eight consecutive years. To explore the Firm’s experience representing entities and individuals in media- and communications-related litigation, as well as pre-publication concerns, visit our Trial & Appellate Litigation, Media, and Media Litigation practice pages.