An American high school student says 'Democracy is for cool kids' — and got in trouble

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: We turn now to an American high school senior who ran into some trouble with Chinese school authorities. Henry DeGroot is an 18-year-old from Newton, Massachusetts and he just spent his Spring semester on a study abroad program in China. While he was there, he wrote something in the notebooks of some Chinese students that got him in hot water. Henry DeGroot takes it from there.

Henry DeGroot: Basically they came up to us with their notebooks and they wanted us to write something. Some of my peers were writing 'stay in school!' or something like that, but I was kind of bored, I didn't think anyone would make anything of it so I wrote 'Don't believe the lies your school and government tell you,' I also wrote 'Democracy is for cool kids' and 'It's right to rebel' which is actually a quote from Mao Zedong.

Werman: So pro-democracy slogans. Did you have any kind of thought about why you were doing it at the time?

DeGroot: Honestly, I thought it was kind of funny. I was bored at the time. But I also do really believe in the things that I wrote.

Werman: But you had signed a code of conduct prior to this semester abroad, you have semester abroad rules. What did the code of conduct say?

DeGroot: The code of conduct is kind of vague but one of the rules definitely said that you were supposed to be on your best behavior. But first of all, I was having a private conversation - well, we're talking about it on BBC World, so it's not necessarily private - but it was a conversation between me and each individual. I wasn't being vulgar or anything.

Werman: Did the code of conduct say anything about political sensitivities? Like if you're in China, try not to do things that might get yourself or anyone else arrested?

DeGroot: We were definitely talked to about that, but at the same time, I don't believe that the school should support a policy which is repressing free speech. They can't just pass this policy and hide behind it.

Werman: Fair enough, but what about the kids in this school in whose notebooks you wrote these things - they could have gotten in serious trouble.

DeGroot: I don't think so. I don't think that's realistic. I don't think there's any evidence that that would happen. The administrators there aren't idiots, they would clearly see that it was me who wrote these things. These kids, most of them barely speak English. I don't see why they would be penalized for my actions. Yes, China has been and still is totalitarian and authoritarian with the Communist Party ruling things, but at the same time, they're not dumb. They know who did this and they know that it's not the kids' fault.

Werman: You seem to think that this is about freedom of speech and that would be a fair thing if we were in the United States and you were writing this. Your school principal says it's not about freedom of speech and you've actually put this exchange program with China at risk.

DeGroot: I don't deny that my actions were pretty stupid. But at the same time, that doesn't mean that the American school should support suppression of free speech.

Werman: You were in China for 4 months. Were there things there that you did learn, that you were happy with?

DeGroot: My host family while I was there was just so amazing. I've really never had that experience of being so welcomed amongst strangers who invited me into their own home to live with them in America. It really showed me first hand the importance of family in Chinese society.

Werman: Are you going to apologize for what you wrote? Do you want some kind of forgiveness? Does that mean something?

DeGroot: I actually was already basically forced by my school to apologize and then I wrote an apology letter and it was edited and I explained why, in my culture, we don't believe that any idea should be too taboo to be criticized, especially when it comes to academic integrity. I was told to edit that out, but honestly I'm not sorry. I kind of regret it, but I'm definitely not sorry about it. Those are two different things.

Werman: One price you paid was that you were forbidden from going to your senior prom. So what did you do instead?

DeGroot: I had already paid for a tux rental, so me and my date, we got dressed up and we went and took prom pictures and then we actually took a field trip to Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which is my favorite burger joint, which I hadn't been to since I had been to China. We enjoyed ourselves there, we walked in, it was fun because obviously was noticing us - like me in my tux. My night was pretty fun without actually going to the dance, so I'm not too concerned about missing prom.

Werman: Henry DeGroot, who will be graduating from Newton North High School in Newton, Massachusetts. Thanks very much for speaking with us, Henry.

DeGroot: Thanks for having me.