Is It Really That Funny (Junk)?

It seemed like such a hilarious idea at the time, and Evan Emory might have become a Youtube sensation, launching him into the big league of such cutting edge comic as Daniel Tosh (the  Tosh.0 fame).  Except it  didn’t turn out well when parents found out he scammed the Beachnau Elementary School and used their first graders in his raunchy video.

The  New York Times captures the small town conflict surrounding Emory’s actions.

Tony Tague, the Muskegon County prosecutor, stands firmly in the first camp: He charged Mr. Emory with manufacturing and distributing child pornography, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and 25 years on the sex offender registry.

“It is a serious, a huge violation,” said Charles Willick, whose 6-year-old daughter was one of the students, all readily identifiable, in the video. “He crossed the line when he used children.”

Not everyone thinks the 21 year old is the most evil person ever.

“I think they’re making a very huge deal out of it ,and it’s really not that big of a deal,” said Holly Hawkins, 27, a waitress at the Holiday Inn downtown. “None of the kids were harmed in any way.”

That the video harmed no one doesn’t appear to calm the prosecution or dissuade Tague from pursuing charges that appear absurd under the circumstances.  So what does the obligatory lawprof say?

Legal experts say the case — and the strong reactions it has drawn from places as far as Ireland and Australia— underscores the still evolving nature of the law when it comes to defining child pornography in the age of Facebook, YouTube and sexting.

The Supreme Court has ruled that child pornography is not subject to the same First Amendment protections as adult pornography, since it is assumed that the child is being abused.

But with the rise of technology, said Carissa B. Hessick, an associate professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State and an expert on child pornography and criminal sentencing, “now we have situations where people are being arrested and charged” in connection with digitally altered images, where no child was abused.

Hidden within this “expertise” is a problem that may well balloon out of control, and blindside otherwise good kids and families.  Have you ever watched Tosh.0?  His show is replete with youtube videos showing kids getting hurt, throwing up, behaving in horribly foolish, nasty and ridiculous ways.  And this gets on the internet and thousand, no millions, watch it and laugh hysterically. 

Much of what one sees is the product of stupid animal kid tricks combined with the good fortune of having a running video recorder.  But much of it isn’t, and even less going forward is likely to be.  There is a trend toward doing wild, crazy, idiotic things to create videos so hysterically funny that they will go viral, or, if one is incredibly lucky, catch Tosh’s eye and make it onto his show.  Kids will take absurd risks with their safety and risk public humiliation to have their 30 seconds of fame.

They don’t intend to do harm.  They intend to be stars, or at least what passes as a star in this age of transitory internet fame.

Conduct such as Emory’s, lying to get an “in” at an elementary school to get a first grade class as a backdrop to a “funny” video, isn’t intended to cause any harm, but just an imaginative effort to create an hysterically funny video that has a chance of going viral. At the rate things are going, the envelope is being pushed daily, hourly maybe, to come up with more extreme ways to amuse others.  There is an “anything goes” atmosphere and kids are prepared to do anything they can to make the cut.

The problem is that youth internet culture is promoting this effort far, far beyond what most adults realize.  How many readers have watched Tosh.0 or spent time at funnyjunk?  These are huge sources of entertainment for kids, and the content spans the funny to the sick and disgusting.  You may not be familiar with it, but you can bet your teens and twenties are, whether you realize it or not.

There is a constant stream of new images and videos being put up in the hope of capturing the interest of the mass of kids who have become humor junkies, but so jaded that only the most outrageous things amuse them anymore.  And these kids are stretching the bounds of their safety, anything resembling intelligent judgment and the law to come up with the newest, funniest thing.

Granted, some of the videos are very funny, involve no one getting hurt or being humiliated and are devoid of sexual references. Some are even quite sweet. But it’s much harder to come up with some clean and funny.  For those young people who can’t come up with funny without being harmful, they do what they can and take risks they shouldn’t.

The problem is that the law and teen humor is at monumental odds, as demonstrated by Evan Emory’s situation. 

Even the Muskegon County sheriff, Dean Roesler, whose deputies arrested Mr. Emory after parents complained about the video, acknowledged that the case represented uncharted territory. While he found the video alarming and offensive, Sheriff Roesler said, “I realize the Internet is just a whole new arena that we’re learning to deal with in law enforcement, and actual legislation is having a hard time keeping up.”

Not understanding what drives a 21 year old to do what he did, Emory is facing extreme consequences for what he perceived as a (relatively) harmless prank.  And it’s destroying him and his family.

But the hilarity vanished when sheriff’s deputies showed up at Mr. Emory’s house and seized his computer and his iPhone.

He realized “they were looking for things that a pedophile would have,” Mr. Emory said recently during an interview in his lawyer’s office, and it horrified him. He cried several times during the interview. During the night he spent in jail, he said, “I just thought about how much I regretted this and how funny it wasn’t anymore.”

Since his arrest, he has been suspended from his job as a waiter at Applebee’s, he said. The court expenses have forced his father, a power plant insulator who was laid off in November, to go out of state to find work.

While the parents of the first graders, and the teaches and administrators at the elementary school, are deservedly angry about having been lied to and taken advantage of by Emory, do they seriously consider his conduct worthy of such an extreme consequence?  Even if they do at the moment, how will they feel about it twenty years from now, when their first graders are completing their medical residency and Evan Emory is pleading with the parole board to let him out?

There’s little different about Evan Emory than most normal, average, American 21 year olds who enjoy a good laugh and want their moment of internet fame.  While there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s a lesson for all of us, as this strikes far closer to home than most of us imagine.  No 21 year old wants to spend the rest of his life waiting tables at Applebee’s.

5 thoughts on “Is It Really That Funny (Junk)?

  1. Justin Wilder

    If you read the entire law Mr. Emory was charged under (MCL 750.145c) it really doesn’t seem that the law covers what he did.
    The Michigan law clearly states that such-and-such visual depictions are required to trigger the law. Since there were no visual depictions of any “acts” this case should be dismissed by any judge with the reading comprehension of a … first grader.

  2. Daublin

    I can’t help but comment on “the actual legislation is having a hard time keeping up”.

    It seems that for the things we feel, at a gut level, are real crimes, we don’t need law to be upgraded for the technology. Children have misbehaved forever. When they do it of their own volition in order to gain popularity, surely there’s no crime. They’ve done it for ages, and they would hardly be kids at all if they weren’t.

    On the other hand, if someone responsible for a child encourages them on to doing something that will harm them, it’s a crime no matter how or even whether it is recorded. We don’t need a law for harming kids of camera, harming them on video, harming them on youtube, harming them in a parking lot, harming them in a house, and on and on. We have law against harming children, and it’s already sufficient.

  3. SHG

    From the sheriff’s perspective, the concern about the law keeping apace is not only very real, but an important protection for the rest of us.  Once they start wiggling conduct to find within criminal laws for which is was never intended, the laws lose their precision and we lose any sense of understanding what is and isn’t a crime.  This can have terrible consequences.

    When it comes to what constitutes a crime, gut instinct may work when it comes to lenity, but is never a substitute for the creation of a crime.  That requires legislative intent and a framework specifically directed toward the offending conduct.

  4. Jim Majkowski

    I wish you were right about “never.” Unfortunately, there are a great many Tagues in positions of authority and never comes early all too often. I wish this foolish, but not malicious kid would be treated like the Westoboro clods: the object of national disapproval but not of punishment by government.

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