High school soccer player silenced for speaking out

Emil Cohen, 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Toronto’s Northern Secondary School, was silenced and suspended for speaking out against his coaches and the ‘second class’ treatment of his soccer team, at a school athletic assembly on November 22nd 2010.

As reported by Winnipeg Sun, Cohen believes he and his team were “getting the short end of the physical education department’s stick.” Cohen said: “We now have it instilled into us that soccer [at Northern] is synonymous with the word ‘unnecessary.’

Cohen — who presented the speech with a fellow teammate — was cut off after only presenting half of it. “…Nevertheless, we had a team this year, due to the tenacity and perseverance of several players, who took it upon themselves to do the Phys Ed Department’s job and find a coach.” The music was cued and Cohen was escorted off stage. Emil planned to continue with: “… I feel that it is my duty as a soccer player that is graduating this year to demand that in the future, the team receives a lot more respect than it did in the last 3 years.”

A Macleans: on campus article argues “schools should be teaching students how to participate in society, not giving lessons in petty tyranny.”

CBC News reports “Cohen disobeyed the rule that speeches before the school body must be approved in advance by staff. The teen didn’t follow the directions of a teacher who advised him to amend his speech.”

The Star highlights the letter written by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to the school’s principal Varla Abrams, which raised alarming concerns about the school policy, which seems to be allowing staff to “effectively censor students by receiving any speeches they intend to deliver in advance or prevent them from voicing their complaints.”

The Toronto District School Board spokesman Shari Schwartz-Maltz said the whole thing “has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of speech, it has everything to do with airing your concerns during an appropriate time.”

So then what’s the right time to speak your mind? When no one is listening? It should be the opposite. And who chooses when it’s appropriate to express an opinion?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not designate free speech zones. And while one could understand the school taking strong action if the student was calling for violence or fomenting hatred, Cohen’s speech appears to have been a thoughtful, well-reasoned appeal for greater access to school resources. If the school doesn’t believe a school assembly is the appropriate venue for student voices and opinions, perhaps they could designate what is.

Many joined The Globe and Mail’s conversation, via the “Student suspended for criticizing lack of support for soccer” article, and agreed with the notion that “if you speak out against authority, authority will squash you.”

Educators are meant to help students flourish — to encourage the exploration of individual visions and opinions — not suppress them. This is not the message Schwartz-Maltz and the Northern Secondary School’s speech censoring tactics relay.

National Post reports that not all students agree with Cohen — chanting “Get a real cause!” — and not all supported the “Appeal for Emil: Rally to End Censorship by Northern Administration” rally on December 3rd 2010. Ian Allison, Superintendent of the high school, attended the rally — which he believed was an opportunity for Emil and others to express themselves — but remained impartial.    

Hats off to Cohen and his supporters for standing united in the fight for free speech, and also to those who disagree with Cohen, for having their say and being heard as well.