Student cites freedom of speech after suspension for online videos

Article was published on Wednesday, Jun 01, 2011 10:53pm

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.

But administrators at the Grade 12 student’s Whitby high school were so offended when they found the animations on YouTube last month, they sent him home and called the police. He is being kept out of school during the investigation.

Now, fellow students at Donald A. Wilson Secondary School are demanding the 18-year-old be reinstated, arguing the school overstepped its bounds by meting out punishment for something that happened off campus. Mr. Christie says the administration is stomping on his right to freedom of speech.

“They’ve unfairly judged me and judged my character based on something I made for entertainment,” he said on Wednesday. “I have the right to post videos on the Internet on my own time.”

A spokeswoman for the Durham District School Board refused to discuss the case, citing confidentiality laws, but obliquely explained the school’s actions: “If something is considered detrimental to the positive moral tone of the school, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen inside the school [for us to get involved],” said Andrea Pidwerbecki.

Neither Mr. Christie’s principal nor the superintendent for the area responded to requests from The Globe and Mail for comment.

Mr. Christie created the videos on his laptop for presentations in economics and politics classes over the course of the last school year. Titled Jack Christie Talks to Children, they feature an animated representation of himself leading a pair of kids on adventures and purporting to explain various subjects, such as politics and corporate whistle-blowing.

He said his teachers had no problem with the content – one even lent his voice to an animation – and he didn’t get in trouble until he uploaded the videos to YouTube. He was swiftly given a one-day suspension. A few days later, his principal laid out an ultimatum: Take the videos down or the police would be called. He refused to budge.

Mr. Christie hasn’t been allowed to return to class for a week and is unsure whether he can attend his prom on Friday. He says the school board has not given him the opportunity to defend himself.

Durham Regional Police confirmed the force received a complaint from the principal and his superior. An officer is investigating but has not reached any conclusions.

Donald A. Wilson Secondary School, meanwhile, is abuzz.

“I know that lots of students are talking about it and they’re kind of annoyed,” said Grade 12 student Matt Primeau. “It seems there’s no real reason why Jack’s missed so much school.”

Gavin Russell, prime minister of the student government, gathered scores of signatures on a petition supporting Mr. Christie before two staff members warned him that, if he continued, he could also face punishment.

Mr. Russell said he understands administrators’ concern about the videos being shown in class, but suggests they over-reacted by trying to stop them being put online.

“I don’t think they did the right thing in giving him an indefinite suspension based on videos he made at home that weren’t under their jurisdiction,” he said.

Richard Rosenberg, a civil-liberties advocate and professor emeritus in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Computer Science, said there is no clearly-defined line on how far a school can regulate student activity off-campus.

“You might tell a student that it is offensive, but I don’t think I would go so far as to suspend or to demand students apologize or take it down,” he said.

Mr. Christie, meanwhile, has protested against the situation with another video. In it, he speaks directly to school officials through his cartoon avatar.

“We live in a nation where freedom of expression and media is considered a staple of our constitution,” he says. “I have the right to say and advertise whatever … I want, and I hope that today’s bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds are smart enough to understand that it’s all comedy and nothing more.”

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  1. #1 by Fatimah Desai on June 8, 2011 - 9:56 am

    Nice Article. Interesting news

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