Elspeth Lodge December 3, 2010 – 7:56 pm
A Toronto student succeeded in attracting hundreds of supporters yesterday to a rally accusing administrators at Northern Secondary School of violating his rights to free speech.
But he also attracted a number of students from the school who weren’t so supportive, many gathering nearby and chanting: “Get a real cause!”
Emil Cohen’s backers included a local politician, parents and random citizens who heard about the “Appeal for Emil: Rally to End Censorship by Northern Administration” through the media.
The Grade 12 student was suspended for two days and lost his physical education privileges after a speech at a school athletic assembly criticized the school for its poor treatment of the soccer team. His speech was cut short and he was escorted off the stage.
“Sometimes you have to speak up. I don’t think it was disrespectful at all,” said Cara Worthington, whose husband was coach of the Northern Secondary school soccer team for 19 years.
That opinion was not shared by students who stood nearby in support of other sports teams. “Who is ‘we’?” one of the students yelled. “The school’s over here not over there!”
They managed to drown out Mr. Cohen when he attempted to deliver the complete version of his athletic assembly speech.
Among the allegations made by Mr. Cohen is that the school favoured the football team when it came to scheduling use of the field and the soccer team was supplied with inadequate equipment, uniforms and coaching.
While the two groups of protesters traded barbs, school superintendent Ian Allison stood off to the side, observing the scene and siding with no one.
“We’re here to support the students,” he said. “In terms of this rally, this is an opportunity for Emil and others to express themselves.”
The athletic assembly was an opportunity for something altogether different.
“The issue here is not the speech itself,” he said. “The issue is there was a process, and he didn’t follow through.”
Mr. Allison said the student did not work with staff and the speech was not approved. The assembly was intended to celebrate the achievements of student athletes in the school.
The rally organizers want the school to remove the suspension from his permanent record, return phys ed privileges, formally apologize, and ensure that students have the right to free speech.
Rosario Marchese, MPP and education critic for the NDP, criticized the school for its actions.
“It is absolutely wrong,” he told the crowd. “The teachers involved made a mistake and they should admit it. They should apologize to him and learn from this mistake.”
There was no indication from Mr. Allison that the administration would change its mind about Mr. Cohen’s suspension.