Stuck between a Rock and School Censorship

When I learned that a student had been suspended from school for videos posted on youtube, my first thought was to wonder why officials keen on censorship never remember that censorship leads to publicity. Courtesy of the Durham District School Board (Ontario), Jack Christie is now enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, and has even made a video thanking the Board for all the views his videos have received.

The reaction has been predictable. Reading through the comments on youtube, there is lots of support for “sticking it to the man,” which makes me nostalgic for the civil disobedience of the 1960s and 1970s. Progressive folks used to say that racism was bad. Now it’s apparently progressive to have a character say “kill all black people” because it’s parody, and anyway the hypocrisy of the character is evident when he says he is black from the waist down. Sounds like racial stereotyping to me, but clearly I am too old to get the humour here.

According to the Globe and Mail:

Jack Christie’s videos are the kind of thing you see every day on the Internet. Crudely animated stick figures swear and fire automatic rifles. There are off-colour jokes about everything from race to pedophilia to cocaine. Absurd incidents – such as the assassination of an evil talking mango – seem to happen at random.

These are the kind of videos that I stop my kids from watching, and when they ask why, I have a little trouble explaining. I’m not opposed to offensive or absurd humour. I’m a Monty Python fan, and find Family Guy funny – not always, but much of the time. Many amateur imitators of Family Guy and South Park think swear words and random violence are funny on their own, and there’s an audience for that. I also understand that some artists start practicing their craft with crude attempts that may improve over time (full disclaimer – I write for Demand Media). Meanwhile, I try to introduce my kids to more sophisticated humour, in the same way that I try to introduce them to healthier foods.

Why would a school suspend a student over material posted on YouTube? What about the constitutional right of free speech? In the flurry of comments attacking the school board for its apparently idiotic actions, a few facts have been overlooked. First, the claim that the suspension is a result of the videos comes from Mr. Christie. The school claims there are other reasons, but doesn’t provide them, and shouldn’t, out of respect for Mr. Christie’s privacy. Second, the school has a code of conduct that places limits on the actions of students. This is certainly a power that can be abused, but it is also a power that many employers have over their employees. If I publicly ridicule my employer, even if I do it on my own time, I will lose my job. That may not be fair, but it is the real world. Third, occasionally there are incidents at schools where, after the event, the school is criticized for failing to pay attention to warning signs, such as online postings. I don’t see anything in the videos to suggest that Mr. Christie is a danger to anyone, however there is an expectation that schools will monitor and investigate students’ activity outside of the school. The school board is damned if it reports anything, and may be damned if it does not.

As a few other commentators have noted, the most shocking aspect of the whole affair, and what may be most embarrassing to the school, is that Mr. Christie claims these videos were prepared for class assignments and received good marks. Jack Christie Talks to Children – The Feheley 6900, was a cell phone ad project for an economics class. Whether the video is funny or offensive may be a matter of taste, but if this is considered acceptable work for a high school economics course, it’s no wonder the school was unhappy about the posting on YouTube.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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