USC sues YouTubers over disruptive prank videos

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 23: The Trojan Statue at the center of the USC campus Monday for the first day of in-person classes. USC and California State University campuses start in-person classes on Monday, serving as a test case for whether vaccine mandates, masking, regular testing and other protocols can minimize spread of the Delta variant even as thousands of students congregate in classes, dorms and social events. USC campus on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
A judge granted a temporary restraining order to USC against two YouTubers who barged into classrooms to film videos for their channels. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

USC is suing two YouTubers for allegedly causing "terror and disruption" after barging into classrooms to film prank videos for their channels.

Ernest Kanevsky and Yuguo Bai, who are not USC students, staged three "classroom takeover incidents" in the university's Mark Taper Hall of Humanities, court documents say. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Friday issued a temporary restraining order banning the pair from the University Park campus and other school buildings.

In the most recent incident, on March 29, Kanevsky and Bai interrupted a lecture on the Holocaust while pretending to be "a member of the Russian Mafia" and Hugo Boss, a known manufacturer of Nazi uniforms during World War II, according to court documents.

The interruption created a panic among students, who began fleeing the classroom — in some cases tripping over seats and leaving behind laptops and backpacks — in an attempt to get away from "what reasonably appeared to them as a credible threat of imminent classroom violence," the suit says.

"I was near the door and I started running out," one student told USC Annenberg Media after the incident, which ended with the arrest of the men by the Los Angeles Police Department. "Everyone just left in a really big panic."

The men's conduct "amounts to both a public and private nuisance, has caused [USC] students to experience emotional distress and genuine fear for their personal well-being, and has resulted in ongoing concern among community members regarding overall safety" on campus, attorneys for the university wrote in their application, which also mentions up to 10 unidentified associates of Kanevsky and Bai.

The pair could not be reached for comment on Monday, and it was not clear whether they had obtained legal representation.

Earlier incidents followed a similar pattern, according to the suit.

In September, Kanevsky, Bai and an associate entered a data science lecture, the suit says, and allegedly used physical intimidation to force the professor out of the classroom before taking over the lectern and subjecting the students to "insults and demeaning behavior."

In November, according to the suit, they barged into a classroom dressed as characters from the TV show "Squid Game" and staged a fake kidnapping with two other associates, with Bai at one point yelling: "If they catch me, my family will die!"

In addition to the restraining order, the suit seeks compensatory damages for an amount to be proved at trial, along with attorneys' fees and other related costs, court documents say. The temporary restraining order also prevents the men from making further online postings related to the incidents at USC.

In a statement on Monday, university officials said the safety and well-being of students, faculty and staff is a top priority.

"The court’s order granting a temporary restraining order underscores the need to provide a sense of stability and comfort in an in-person learning environment and in light of campus safety concerns nationally on college campuses," the university said. "The court ruling should be viewed as a warning that such behavior won’t be tolerated by these or any other individuals."

In recent months, other social media pranks have garnered similar attention — and outrage — including the viral video of a Tesla crash in Echo Park in March, which was allegedly performed and uploaded in part for online clout.

Kanevsky's YouTube channel has more than 111,000 subscribers and his videos have received more than 8.3 million views. The channel features dozens of prank videos at universities, in gyms and restaurants, on the beach and in other locations.

USC students and faculty subjected to the pranks have experienced a "profound loss of a personal well-being and safety in an environment of higher learning," court documents say.

"Simply put," the attorneys wrote, "there is no public benefit to terrorizing students to the point where they are running out of lecture halls for fear of their lives through the perpetration of 'prank' classroom takeovers in order to garner a handful of 'likes' on YouTube."

A preliminary injunction hearing in the case has been set for April 28.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.