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.