The University of Southern California is suing two YouTubers, alleging caused a “credible threat of imminent classroom violence” by disrupting lectures to record prank videos.
The school filed for temporary restraining orders against Ernest Kanevsky and Yuguo Bai, who are not USC students, saying they staged three “classroom takeover prank” videos. The restraining orders, which a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge granted Friday, ban the pair from the University Park campus.
In the most recent "prank" recorded filmed at USC, Kanevsky and Bai interrupted a lecture about the Holocaust and claimed to be part of the Russian mafia. The confrontation they staged in the classroom incited panic among the students, USC said.
USC's complaint alleges that Kanevsky “regularly harasses, bullies and intimidates unsuspecting citizens” throughout Los Angeles by recording “prank” videos for his YouTube channel. He often “dangerously and recklessly” conducts “classroom takeovers” with the help of Bai, who records the stunts and has his own YouTube channel, the complaint alleges.
Kanevsky and Bai’s interruption caused students “emotional distress and genuine fear for their personal well-being,” the complaint states, and given the “national background of active shooter concerns” in colleges, the disruptions have contributed to the “growing anxiety” over campus safety.
Kanevsky and Bai did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a statement to The New York Times, Kanevsky said, “The whole lawsuit and what everyone is reporting is very deceiving.”
He said in an Instagram comment Monday that the lawsuit was "reaching to the fullest."
The restraining orders were issued amid a shift in public acceptance of online prank content, which were wildly popular on YouTube years ago. Audiences are less tolerant of cruel and obnoxious prank videos, especially when they are recorded in public spaces like university campuses.
Cynthia Gendrich, a theater professor at Wake Forest University who teaches about laughter and sociology, has previously said there is a limit to public tolerance for pranks.
“Lots of theorists point at that moment when our hearts [or] empathy engages being the moment when we can’t laugh,” she said.
In an incident March 29, Kanevsky and Bai stormed into a USC classroom lecture about the Holocaust in costume, according to the complaint. It said Kanevsky was dressed as a "member of the Russian Mafia," while Bai pretended to be Hugo Boss, a German designer who manufactured Nazi uniforms during World War II.
Kanevsky walked into the classroom carrying a "distinctive silver briefcase" and asked whether Hugo Boss was in the room, the complaint claims, adding that the professor believed that a "potentially violent incident" was about to happen and that Kanevsky targeted his class because of the lecture's subject matter.
The pair then staged a confrontation, and Kanevsky reached into the silver briefcase, causing a "wave of panic" among the students, who began fleeing in a "frantic attempt" to get away from the incident, according to the complaint. Some tripped over seats and one another, and others left behind laptops and backpacks.
"I was near the door, and I started running out," student Avery Kotler told USC Annenberg Media. "Everyone just left in a really big panic."
I was near the door, and I started running out.
-student Avery Kotler, in an interview with USC Annenberg Media
Officers eventually stopped the pair at gunpoint in a campus parking structure, the complaint states.
Kanevsky told The New York Times that the incident was "part of a dare that was supposed to be a harmless, funny scene."
"The whole notion that we targeted a Holocaust class is absurd," he added. "Hugo Boss is literally the name that Yuguo goes by."
The incident was only the most recent in a string of classroom takeovers staged by Kanevsky and Bai, according to the complaint.
In September, Kanevsky, Bai and a third person barged into a classroom and physically intimidated the professor into leaving before they all took turns "lecturing" the students, the complaint alleges. The professor, who was "visibly shaken up," required campus security to accompany him during lectures for "several weeks" after the incident, it says.
In November, Kanevsky, Bai and two other people disrupted a lecture dressed as characters from the violent show "Squid Game," according to the complaint. Bai, dressed as a "player," entered the classroom chased by Kanevsky, who was dressed as a "guard," it says, which alleges that they staged an apparent kidnapping, with Bai yelling, "If they catch me, my family will die!"
The complaint says several students appeared to be "shaken" after the incident.
Kanevsky and Bai have executed similar stunts at others college campuses, together and separately. Last year, Kanevsky and another person boasted about a classroom evacuation at UCLA in a YouTube video. What appeared to be campus security removed Bai from Santiago Canyon College in Orange, California, after he interrupted students during a test to give "motivational speeches" in a video posted this month. In a YouTube video posted last year, the University of Texas, Dallas police appeared to issue Kanevsky a criminal trespass warning after he interrupted a lecture.
UCLA, Santiago Canyon College and UT Dallas did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Kanevsky and Bai did not respond to requests for comment about previous incidents on other campuses.
USC's lawsuit also demands financial compensation for damages and seeks to ban the pair from making more content about the university.
"T--he 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," USC said in a statement Monday. "The court ruling should be viewed as a warning that such behavior won't be tolerated by these or any other individuals."