TORONTO --The Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation strongly criticized the arts community and the media yesterday for turning a 16-year-old charged with uttering death threats into a poster boy for freedom of expression.
It also said that showcasing the boy, out on $10,000 bail, at a National Arts Centre fundraiser next weekend is an inappropriate way of "addressing this highly complex problem".
The Eastern Ontario teen is charged with four counts of uttering death threats, one related in part to a Grade 11 drama monologue, and three others related to threats against schoolmates.
The federation made the comments in a statement that followed the school principal's complaints last week that the media has sensationalized the case in accounts that are devoid of all the facts.
(The Young Offenders Act prohibits publication of information that would lead to the identification of a young person charged with a crime. There also is a court-ordered ban on publication of evidence and information disclosed at the boy's bail hearing.)
The principal of the rural school of 500 students north of Cornwall told The Globe and Mail that some media outlets have turned the case into one about freedom of expression rather than one about threats on the lives of some students.
In the statement, the federation said that no one at the school, including the student's drama teacher, penalized the teen for the presentation or attempted in any way to censor it.
"However, given the reaction of the class to his monologue, his teacher recognized that this monologue might represent more than just the true creativity of the student, but might in fact be a hidden cry for help."
"As a result, the teacher initiated a discussion with the student to see if he wished to seek some help with potential real problems, as opposed to the fictional manner in which they were presented."
The statement says that in the days after the drama presentation, other students in the school reported being the recipients of threats of violence, and of being on a "hit list".
The Ontario Provincial Police were called in. They investigated and laid the charges.
The federation said it can understand if those in the arts community, or those active in civil-rights issues, come to the defence of students who are truly being censored.
"However, it is crucial that the arts community get their facts right before raising alarm bells and blaming individuals or institutions without all the facts."
PEN Canada sees the charges against the teen as an attack on freedom of expression. As well, the Ottawa International Writers Festival is holding the fundraiser to raise money for the boy's defence and to discuss associated civil-liberties issues.
Maurice Green, the federation's legal counsel, asked in an interview whether anyone in the arts community "jumps on board" in defence of someone at an airport who is arrested for joking about having a bomb in their luggage.
"They don't come along and say [it's] freewheeling artistic comedy in the middle of the day at the airport and you've got freedom of expression."
After his release on bail in the care of his parents, the boy told The Globe and Mail that he never thought of acting out his fantasy, which he wrote and then performed for his drama class.
He said he simply wanted to write something that sounded realistic. "I wanted to scare them, and I scared them very well", he said.
His mother has said the presentation was inspired by his experiences as a victim of bullying but "he also wanted to impress the teacher".