The Latest YouTube Legal Issue Seems Horribly Overblown

The Latest YouTube Legal Issue Seems Horribly Overblown

By now you've probably heard of Evan Emory. He's the 21-year-old Michigan man that now faces 20 years in prison for a simple YouTube prank that has been blown way out of proportion. After Emory completed a harmless musical performance before an elementary school classroom, a video appeared online that made it appear as though he had actually performed a song full of vulgarity and sexuality. It was just a little editing trick--an attempt at shock humor--but now he's been arrested and is facing criminal charges.

To be clear, Emory obtained permission from the school to perform for a group of first graders. And he did--he sang the Lunch Lady Song by Adam Sandler, among others. After his performance ended, Emory went back to the classroom, which was now empty, and filmed a second performance, this time of a crude and suggestive song.

You can guess what happens next, I'm sure. He edited the two videos together so it would look like he sang the vulgar song to the kids, and then posted the thing on YouTube. In typical U.S. overreacting fashion, parents are outraged, the school is ticked off, and everyone in the blog-o-sphere has an opinion.

I can't show you the video, because it's been removed. But I can show you a local news story about the case, which includes a few brief snippets of the original piece:

I can't believe it's come to this, honestly. Let's break it down a bit.

Did Emory Break A Law?

The charge Emory faces--"manufacturing child sexual abusive material"--seems almost made up. The problem is... does it apply here? I mean... the children in question weren't abused and weren't subjected to abusive material. They were subjected to an old Adam Sandler song (which, I'll grant, in some cases, would qualify as abusive).But the news article also says this:

"(Prosecutor) Tague said Michigan law 'provides penalty' for those who actually manufacture child sexual abusive material 'but also has a provision for those who make it appear that the children were actually abused.'”

Okay, so then we have to determine whether or not Emory's video "makes it appear that the children were actually abused." I'm not sure that's quite the slam dunk the prosecutor seems to think it is. In fact, I'm betting it was fairly obvious to anyone watching the video that the kids weren't really in the room when the vulgar bits were filmed. People are pretty hip to film tricks these days... they know Shia Labouf isn't actually standing next to a five-story-tall robot.

Did Emory lie to the school about his intentions? Yes he did. He's admitted deceiving the school. But is that illegal? Ultimately, the school gave him permission to be there to perform and film. The fact that they did not watch him carefully enough to see what he did afterwards is on the school as much as anyone, right?

If Not Emory, Then Who Can We Blame?

It's not a news story or scandal in this country if we don't quickly try to ascertain who we can blame. In this case, I think we have to blame the school every bit as much as Emory. He pulled a stupid stunt that he clearly didn't think through fully, but I'm not sure he broke the law. But the school is legally responsible for those kids while they're there. They didn't do their due dilligence on Emory's project, and they obviously didn't supervise him at all. Why is the principal not being called out on this debacle?

Would the parents complaining be so upset if the video had just been Emory singing the Lunch Lady Song to their kids, or would they just have thought that was cute? Are they upset because their kid was in a video without their permission... or because their kid is in a video alongside of vulgarity?

Here's a sampling of some of the quotes from offended and wounded parents in the matter, all from the news article linked above:

  • "He got our kid on video!"
  • "It's ridiculous!”
  • "I'm disgusted by it. It was totally uncalled for.”
  • "It is disgusting, anyone with a brain knows that this is wrong and not funny."

Man, they sound like a bunch of whiners. Maybe I would be upset if I were in their shoes, but I'm not sure I'd try to trump up some criminal charges in retribution just so I can feel better.

In fact, the kids are probably the least harmed individuals in this whole mess. They got to see a quick live concert of a couple fun songs. As far as they know, that's the end of it.

Also... do parents not know how often their kids are probably being recording by video cameras? I mean, from closed-circuit security cameras to live webcams to flip cameras... it's a well-documented world we live in now.

What Exactly Is The Law Regarding Filming Minors?

If I go to the zoo with my family, and I'm filming some of our experiences there... and rather by accident some other peoples' kids end up in some of the frames of my video... am I legally bound to get their parents' permission before uploading that video to YouTube? Of course not. But I'm no lawyer. I have no idea where we draw that line. Maybe Grant can weigh in here, because I'm pretty curious to hear his opinion on this case.

Also--notice that Emory isn't being charged with "putting minors in a video without parental permission." Instead, he's being charged with a much more serious crime, one relating to sexuality. Seems a bit over the top to me.

What Can We Learn From All This?

If you're going to include children in your video, you'd better go the extra mile and get parental approval first. That should be rule number one. If I'm one of these parents, I'm far more upset about my kid being in a video I was unaware of than I am about the editing to make it look vulgar.

And yet the parents in this case seem most bothered by the vulgarity element, which is just laughable to me. If Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen had done this, it would be raking in $200 Million at the box office. But because it was an amateur filmmaker doing it on the sly... it's a 20-year prison sentence? Give me a break. Maybe you fine the kid for deceiving the school officials and then just be done with it. It doesn't feel like any jail time is warranted at all.

Just because something hurts our feelings or makes us angry... that doesn't always mean a law was broken. College students who make stupid decisions don't necessarily have to be labeled as criminals.

About the Author -
Jeremy Scott is the founder of The Viral Orchard, an Internet marketing firm offering content writing and development services, viral marketing consulting, and SEO services. Jeremy writes constantly, loves online video, and enjoys helping small businesses succeed in any way he can. View All Posts By -

What do you think? ▼
  • Timothy Stark

    Really attack an actual criminal. Tague, do you not have something better to do with your time?

  • Jay

    "Just because something hurts our feelings or makes us angry… that doesn’t always mean a law was broken."

    This sums it up nicely.

  • http://www.reelseo.com/author/grantastic/ Grant Crowell

    I just spoke with the attorney representing Evan Emory. This actually falls under family law practice, so I'm making arrangements to talk with an attorney who's an expert in this field to understand the issues better, and then I will be following up with Evan's attorney for an interview.

    • Jeremy Scott

      Fantastic! Can't wait to read it.

  • Titania3

    Actually what he's guilty of here, is slandering the school. By making it look as if he was allowed to perform dirty material for the kiddies, he made the school and the teachers look like neglectful, child-abusing twits. For that reason alone, he owes the school restitution and an apology.

    Most people would get that it wasn't real, but you'd be amazed what parents of small children will do when they think a school is exposing their kids to unwanted stuff.

    • Jeremy Scott

      I can see an apology or slap on the wrist. He did make the school look bad. But I have to blame the school for that as well, because they clearly didn't do their job. They helped make themselves look neglectful.

    • etherwar

      I saw it written elsewhere (I think the initial site that broke the story) that there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the video that said the children weren't actually present for the vulgar lyrics... I think that pretty much puts the DA's arguments on ice.

      I think the DA knows this too, and is pursuing this as a means of punishment in-and-of-itself to the defendant.

  • http://www.sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

    I think this kid made two mistakes: He used a school (public property) to perpetrate his little gag, and he didn't get permission from the parents of the children. Still, the *worst* that should happen (assuming that anything has to happen at all) is an apology and some community service.

    I'd also like to see this guy spin his performance into a few late-night talk show appearances. He ought to be able to get some miles (and some money) out of his joke.

    For what it's worth, Will Farrel and Dave Chappelle have both used variations of this gag...but they got parental permission first.

    • Jeremy Scott

      Totally agree that he should have simply gotten permission. What's frustrating is that the parents seem more upset about the editing of the video than the permission aspect. Would there be as big an uproar if the video simply showed him singing the fun songs?

      • http://www.sporkmarketing.com Jason Lancaster

        Do you think he would have been better off if he had put some sort of "no children heard naughty language" disclaimer at the end of the video? It loses a bit of the shock value, but it might have saved him from a lot of effort.

        Bigger question: What's your opinion on disclosure in the video - could it keep a video from going viral?

        • Jeremy Scott

          Sure it can, I think. And yes... a disclaimer might have helped him in terms of this trouble, but would probably have removed a bit of the shock value he was clearly going for. A video like this depends on that initial audience shock to succeed.

        • Ledzeppelinfan101

          He actually did have a disclaimer at the beginning, according to another news source I read tonight. It said something along the lines of "No children were exposed to the naughty words in this song"

  • http://www.reelseo.com/author/grantastic/ Grant Crowell

    Here's the latest news on the story:

    http://www.mlive.com/news/muskegon/index.ssf/2011/02/evan_emory_speaks_i_feel_like.html

    I think we're overlooking a very important part of the story here: Did the school ever get the parents' permission to have their kids video recorded in the first place? I haven't seen any news or evidence yet that they have any such waiver or release, or that the school had any written agreement with Emory over the content of the video.

    Watch the video on this page: "Evan Emory Arraignment."

    • Jeremy Scott

      Man, that prosecutor seems entirely too aggressive. There's no way any logical society would convict this kid of a sexual crime. That's a significant overreaction.

      And I have said all along that the school should be in just as much hot water as Emory. Still not sure why no one's blaming them.

      • http://www.reelseo.com/author/grantastic/ Grant Crowell

        Well, my interview with the attorney has been done, along with some special experts I was able to snag on child pornography issues. Basically it comes down to the interpretation of Michigan state law on child pornography (which I'm having e-mailed to me later this afternoon for me to review over this weekend), and does the YouTube video meet the criteria. That is really what the whole case is about.

        The reason that the school isn't in hot water is because the district attorney arbitrarily chose who to prosecute, and who to leave out. From what has been shared to me (which seems to make good sense), the district attorney's office, the sheriff's office, and the school all have good relations with each other. Unless you have parent's going to the prosecutor's office to file charges against the school (which I don't believe has happened so far), it's likely they're not going to be pro-active with any prosecution against the school themselves.

  • Steve

    Trying to make the school responsible for his stupid actions is just as wrong-headed as what he did. It's precisely because of stunts like this that we live in an increasingly litigious society. No one is even expected to take personal responsibility anymore. We just blame the authorities, as though we're a bunch of serfs who need to be told what to do every minute of the day, and if we step out of line, blame the handler who was supposed to be watching out for us.

    I don't think he should go to jail, but blaming the school for his actions makes no sense.

    • Jeremy Scott

      Respectfully disagree. I'm not absolving this young man for his mistake, but the school needs to bear some responsibility here.

      • http://www.reelseo.com/author/grantastic/ Grant Crowell

        If you go to the home page of the schools's website at http://www.ravennaschools.org/, you will see that they have made a public apology of sorts. The school's superintendent has worded the apology to make it sound like Evan Emory is the only one to be held accountable for the incident.

        Also, the statement reads that "at no time were the students subject to the inappropriate content." That would seem to be what you would need to have for any criminal charge of child pornography, would it?

        It is still unclear as to whether the school ever issued a waiver to the parents, if that was ever signed and returned to the school by all of the parents who's kids were present during the video recording, and what the language of that waiver said. So far I have made several phone calls the past few school days requesting this information or a copy of any waiver given to the parents, but they are neither answering nor returning my calls.

  • Amani Channel

    Bad taste? YES. Stupid eh, stoopid? YES. Crime. No. He should have put up a disclaimer: "No children actually heard this version of the song," or showed the real version after. I don't think he in anyway abused children, but he abused the trust of the school, and parents.

  • Travelingyrene

    Hey guys...what is up with the interpretation of the law?(grantcrowell) I'm working on a paper for my CJ class and would like to use this as an example of possible 'void for vagueness' defense in favor of Emory's case.