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May 09 2012

More Free Speech Problems in Canada

I’ve written many times about the Canadian hate speech laws, which I consider manifestly unjust and wrong. Here’s another example, from Nova Scotia, where a high school told a student that he could not wear a t-shirt that said “Life is wasted without Jesus.” They suspended him more than once, which prompted him to start wearing that shirt every day.

For the past six months, a yellow T-shirt with the slogan “Life is Wasted Without Jesus” has been just another shirt in William Swinimer’s wardrobe.

Lately, the 19-year-old Nova Scotian has worn it every single day since the vice-principal at his high school told him he couldn’t, that it was considered offensive, that it spewed, in his own words, “hate talk.”

Instead of peeling the shirt off like they wanted him to, Mr. Swinimer continued to wear it — straight through a series of in-school suspensions and straight through the five-day at-home suspension he’s currently serving…

When he comes back to class at Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, N.S., on Monday, he plans to wear it again — even if it means he could be suspended for the rest of the school year.

“I believe this is worth standing up for — it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion. I don’t think this is right.”

The school apparently relented on the issue and now there seems to be some confusion over whether he’s going to keep going to that school or not. But this statement is quite disturbing:

On Friday, the suspension was reversed and he was expected to resume classes on Monday, wearing the shirt. The school held a special talk about balancing between religious freedom with students’ rights to not have their beliefs criticized.

Why would anyone think that someone has a right to not have their beliefs criticized? Jason Thibeault, who is from Canada and apparently from the area where this is taking place, wrote about it and focuses on aspects of the situation that seem quite irrelevant to me. And he initially seemed to be justifying the school’s decision:

And therein lies the problem. If the shirt said “My life was wasted without Jesus”, that’s significantly different — it’s an expression of assessment (incorrect though it might be) of his own spiritual life. As it stands, it is an expression of judgment of others, where anyone who isn’t a Christian is a “wasted life”. So Swinimer’s objection that others have worn “Hail Satan” shirts is simply invalid — while such a shirt might be offensive to someone who both believes in Satan and thinks Satan is evil, that reflects only on the person wearing the shirt, NOT on everyone who ISN’T.

But if someone wore a shirt that said “life without reason is wasted,” wouldn’t that also, by this standard, be out of bounds? I don’t think the government has any legitimate authority to censor either t-shirt. In an exchange on Facebook, Jason seems to accept that the hate speech laws are wrong but that the school had little choice:

I have no problem with someone wearing whatever they want on a t-shirt in school. If they wear something hateful, and people are put out by it, too bad. But Canada does have hate speech rules, which I don’t abide by, and the school not saying something about those hateful t-shirts would make them liable…The school was over the line in asking him to take the shirt off, period, but it was complying with those onerous laws (which I’ve also written against in the past and will do so again in the future).

But that seems to me to be all the more reason to focus on what matters here, which is freedom of speech. But another participant in that conversation, also apparently a local resident of the area, took a terribly authoritarian position:

But the issue of the t-shirt is the same issue I have with door to door missionaries and telemarketers. I didn’t ask for it. if you are a student and christian…fine. Why can’t you just hang a cross in your locker?

It’s just plain creepy to me that he thinks someone has to ask him for permission to express their views. I feel the same way about this as I would feel if someone wore a shirt that said “Life without reason is wasted.” And I don’t care that it would offend someone. You do not have a right to be protected from the views of others that you might find offensive.

P.S. And please don’t try to argue that I have no right to criticize another country’s laws, which is inane (funny how no one ever says that when I’m criticizing, say, Pakistan for putting atheists and blasphemers to death). And especially don’t try to argue that I’m an arrogant American making some hackneyed argument about American exceptionalism and how the U.S. is so much better than Canada because that’s equally inane. I despise the idea of American exceptionalism and I criticize my own government for its violations of human rights on a daily basis. I am pretty much the last person who can be accused of such a thing.

Canada is a far more enlightened country than America in a lot of ways, including the fact that I’ve never heard anyone from there talk about “Canadian exceptionalism” and claiming that Canada is the most glorious country the world has ever known, endowed by God to rule the world — something we hear routinely from far too many Americans. And their far more humane treatment of gay people and the poor is something we should do much more to emulate. Plus, they produced Rush and the Tragically Hip (and unfortunately, Celine Dion as well, but don’t get me started on that again). But when it comes to free speech, I think they are flat wrong.

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  1. 1
    shouldbeworking

    The school is wrong, the hate laws are bad, but the problem IMHO, is that the school over reacted, the parent over reacted and then things got bad. I doubt that the hate speech laws were broken by the t shirt. In the school I teach in the t shirt would be allowed.

  2. 2
    michaeld

    I’m not particularly a fan of the banning of this t-shirt. That being said I’m not opposed to student dress codes as long as they are applied fairly and evenly.

    I’m also potentially more sympathetic to the other students in the school who say he’s been witnessing to them against their wishes and saying they’ll go to hell. Depending on how he’s been acting that could well be harassment or bullying.

    I don’t claim to have all the details but in the end I think the whole situation has been mishandled.

  3. 3
    weaver

    There is much, much more to this story than simply wearing the t-shirt. The shirt was just the final straw in a story of a kid obnoxiously thrusting his religion upon others.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2012/05/07/ns-jesus-shirt-student-school.html

  4. 4
    Fionnabhair

    Jason pointed this out in an update to his original post about the situation: this was about more than just a t-shirt. The school was definitely in the wrong to suspend Swinimer because of a t-shirt, but assuming that the comments coming from other students are true, that they were sick of this student evangelizing them all the time and telling them they’re going to hell (and paying particular attention to the foreign students), and this student refused to stop his behaviour when asked several times to do so, then I think a suspension is justified. He was harassing other students.

    The school definitely handled this badly, I agree with you there. They’ve taken the right steps to correct this, and I actually think that the forums they’re holding is a step in the right direction; it’s about discussing religion in a way that’s respectful to other students, which, when one considers how other students felt about Swinimer’s evangelizing, sounds like something they need. Swinimer, at the very least, needs to learn it, so it’s a shame his father made such a show of pulling him out of school.

    From the perspective of the Swinimers, I think this whole situation had less to do with free speech, and more to do with trying to be a martyr and sulking when their precious Christian privilege was challenged.

  5. 5
    Bronze Dog

    Ugh. This is supposed to be a simple matter, and yet there’s still so much confusion and contradiction out there.

    The student is expressing his own view in a non-disruptive way. He is not acting with the authority of nor on behalf of a government organization. Freedom of speech and religion does not mean the government must censor private individuals acting on their own just because they’re on government property.

    And, of course, if a non-Christian student sees someone wearing a shirt like that, he’s equally free to express his own opinion in a non-disruptive manner.

  6. 6
    peicurmudgeon

    This isn’t about hate laws, it is about a school administration using the wrong reason (excuse) to discipline a disruptive student. My understanding, from many of the same sources Jason uses, is that he had been accosting students and proselytizing in the school. The problem should have been dealt with at that stage and not turned into a t-shirt logo/free speech debate. I think it has pretty well been established that by Canadian laws and mores the administration had no right to suspend him based on his shirt.

    We do have hate laws that are totally inappropriate, but I don’t see this as being related to those laws.

  7. 7
    silomowbray, sans frottage pour la douche

    Hi Ed
    As a Canadian and an atheist I was disappointed with the school’s actions in this case. And you hit on exactly the right point – everyone is entitled to their opinions, but no one is entitled to hold their opinions free from criticism.

    As far as our hate speech laws go, I confess to being overwhelmed with ambivalence. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms does protect freedom of expression as it should.* On the other hand, I have some trouble being fussed over people like Ernst Zundel and other bigots and hatemongers being smacked down by our justice system. The hate speech laws, from what I understand, could probably use some fine tuning if we are to keep them. I’d also be okay with doing away with them, but wonder what bottom-feeders would come out of the woodwork were that to happen.

    Thanks for the article. I’m largely on the same page as you here.

    —–
    *The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects:
    (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
    (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
    (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
    (d) freedom of association.

  8. 8
    fredricmartin

    “is that he had been accosting students and proselytizing in the school. ”

    How dare he express unapproved ideas.

  9. 9
    eamick

    (and unfortunately, Celine Dion as well, but don’t get me started on that again)

    What? No Bryan Adams or Avril Lavigne or He Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned?

  10. 10
    michaeld

    @fredricmartin

    Depends on how he was doing it. If other students have told him to leave them alone and he keeps pushing it could well qualify as harassment.

  11. 11
    silomowbray, sans frottage pour la douche

    @fredricmartin

    He can express unapproved ideas all he wants. But he doesn’t get to do it in my face if I ask him to stop.

  12. 12
    Synfandel

    Ed, the student is not being told by “the law” that he can’t wear that shirt in Canada. He was being told by his high school that he couldn’t wear it at school. That’s a very different thing.

    The school has a responsibility to provide a learning environment that is free from harassment and bullying. A T-shirt slogan looking you in the face as you sit in a classroom day after day that tells you that your life is a waste is a form of bullying and the school was right in its original decision to ban the T-shirt.

    Furthermore, William Swinimer has a long history of preaching and badgering his fellow students and his teachers over his wack-a-doodle fundamentalist religious beliefs. There had been many complaints about his behaviour. I think the school finally drew a line over the T-shirt.

  13. 13
    slc1

    Plus, they produced Rush and the Tragically Hip (and unfortunately, Celine Dion as well, but don’t get me started on that again)

    They also produced Justin Bieber although I don’t know if they want to brag about that.

  14. 14
    Artor

    Yeah, this has been handled really poorly. If, as I’ve read elsewhere, the shirt was just the final straw in a pattern of obnoxious, disruptive behavior, then the suspension should be based on the specific disruptive behavior, not the irrelevant text on his shirt. If the school, or Canadian law, lacks the options to respond to asshat behavior and is forced to rely on restrictions of free speech to deal with shit like this, then I think that shows they need to look into bullying & tolerance issues, rather than the knee-jerk response of banning shirts they don’t like.

  15. 15
    Taz

    Plus, they produced Rush and the Tragically Hip

    Neil Young and Joni Mitchell! (You kids get off my lawn.)

    How dare he express unapproved ideas.

    Expressing ideas, or harassment? If someone tells you to leave them alone, you need to leave them alone.

  16. 16
    harold

    Full disclosure – my mother is a native Nova Scotian and I spent most of my childhood there (not in Chester Basin).

    It sounds as if an aggressive, attention-seeking teenager decided to use ostentatious religiosity as a way of getting in peoples’ faces, as is not uncommon.

    He managed to provoke the administration of a rural school in a community of 2000 people into making an obvious ham-handed error, which I am fairly sure is a violation of Canadian and probably Nova Scotian law.

    Certainly the arguments that religious expression isn’t permitted unless requested, although quite characteristic of certain local attitudes (not atheist in origin, more of an effort to avoid religious conflict) is clearly legally nonsensical. There is no law against religious expression in Canada.

  17. 17
    harold

    Neil Young and Joni Mitchell! (You kids get off my lawn.)

    The hipster kids love vintage Neil Young.

  18. 18
    d cwilson

    Synfandel says:

    A T-shirt slogan looking you in the face as you sit in a classroom day after day that tells you that your life is a waste is a form of bullying and the school was right in its original decision to ban the T-shirt.

    Um, no. It’s a piece of cloth worn by an idiot. It doesn’t have any power to bully you unless you give it power. Unless, of course, he wore it day after day without washing it, then I’d understand why no one would want to sit near him.

    Personally, I would have just worn a T-shirt of my own that quoted Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

    fredricmartin says:

    How dare he express unapproved ideas.

    As others have pointed out, it’s not the ideas he was expressing, but the manner in which he went about it. If he was indeed harassing other students and disrupting the learning environment, then he becomes a problem.

    But in using the T-shirt as their pretext for suspending him was entirely the wrong way to deal with the problem because it does create the impression that they’re censoring him.

    The weirdest thing in this case, though, was his father’s reaction:

    But John Swinimer said he wants Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, Lunenburg County, to only teach the basic courses, leaving religion out of it.

    John Swinimer said his son will not return to school until it gets back to teaching the basics. (CBC)”He will not attend this school unless they are having reading, writing and arithmetic — good old-fashioned academics,” he said, waving a New Testament bible. “When they’re having forums, when they’re having other extra-curricular activity, he will not attend that school.”

    Oh, the irony!

  19. 19
    cjtotalbro

    Based on the added context from other students it sounds like he is another entitled evangelical who refused to listen to people’s requests to stop spouting his bullshit at them and has turned himself into another faux martyr.

    Its a stupid response to a stupid kid.

  20. 20
    maudell

    I disagree with the idea that you shouldn’t criticize Canada because you are American. Sometimes the best way to attract attention on a problem is when we know the world sees Canada poorly. I personally think this story in Nova Scotia is appalling, and it’s about time people throw out the ludicrous “right to not be offended”.
    So keep them coming, Ed. I’m a political science student in Canada, and I can’t believe how many students have to problems with censorship and authoritarian rule.

  21. 21
    ambassadorfromverdammt

    People remember Ernst Zundel’s conviction re hate literature, but seem to forget that the SCOC overturned the conviction:

    http://scc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/1992/1992rcs2-731/1992rcs2-731.html

    Per La Forest, L’Heureux-Dubé, Sopinka and McLachlin JJ.: Section 181 of the Code infringes the guarantee of freedom of expression. Section 2(b) of the Charter protects
    the right of a minority to express its view, however unpopular it may be. All communications which convey or attempt to convey meaning are protected by s. 2(b), unless the physical form by which the communication is made (for example, a violent
    act) excludes protection. The content of the communication is irrelevant.

    His conviction for exhorting people to resume the holocaust and finish the job was upheld.

  22. 22
    Synfandel

    It doesn’t have any power to bully you unless you give it power.

    What if the T-shirt slogan had said, “If you’re a Jew you should be exterminated”? Should the school allow that T-shirt? Both make derogatory statements about specific groups of people.

    The school has the right and the responsibility to provide a safe, non-threatening, non-abusive setting for learning and to set and enforce standards of behaviour to that end. Americans tend to over-emphasize their First Amendment right to be a loud-mouthed ass. In a Canadian public school, the right of free expression has limits. William Swinimer was not arrested by the state and thrown in jail for expressing his opinion; he was asked by his school not to wear an offensive T-shirt slogan in class and then was temporarily expelled because he refused to cooperate with the school.

  23. 23
    d cwilson

    What if the T-shirt slogan had said, “If you’re a Jew you should be exterminated”? Should the school allow that T-shirt?

    Yes.

    Of course, he’d probably get his ass kicked, which would have solved that problem anyway.

    But freedom of speech is only meaningful when it protects speech that makes you or other people uncomfortable. No one has the right to never be exposed to ideas they don’t like. The world just doesn’t work that way.

  24. 24
    pacal

    As others have pointed out it appears that in this case it is not the application of “Hate Speech” laws. Instead it is a ham fisted attempt by a School Administration to deal with a disruptive kid, who other kidds were complaining about. I note the kid was not charged with spouting “Hate Speech”.

    THe fact is Canada’s “Hate Speech” laws are hardly ever inforced and the trials of those very few cases that have been done have been legal fiascos for the government. Those charged, like Ernst Zundel have become martyrs and have had huge amounts of publicity much of it favourable from their point of view.

    I further note that these cases, rarely prosecuted, have had no discernible impact on the availability of vicious hateful material. It is still very easy to find copies of the Protocols, Racist and generally hateful material. In this case the “chilling effect” seems minimal to utterly non-existant.

    That said I think the law and laws similar to it should be junked because although it has so far has had little to no effect there is a case to be made for such a law being so used in the future to stifle speech.

  25. 25
    karmakin

    I’ll be honest. This isn’t about hate speech laws. This is about anti-bullying laws and programs. What this kid was doing is no different than if he were running around calling someone a “dirty rotten fag”. I don’t think that’s appropriate for a school environment. It’s hostile, it’s aggressive, it causes real harm, and that sort of thing needs to be stopped.

    The shirt itself, was fine. However in the context of what I could imagine this kid was saying? Not so much.

  26. 26
    Synfandel

    …freedom of speech is only meaningful when it protects speech that makes you or other people uncomfortable.

    You don’t have, and should not have, complete freedom of speech in a public school setting. I repeat that the young man was not slapped in jail by the state; he was asked by his public school to behave more considerately and then was disciplined for being a stubborn ass about it. The school has a responsibility to the other students and to the teachers to provide a learning setting that is free from harassment.

  27. 27
    Walton

    I agree with Ed.

    However, it’s worth mentioning that the US courts haven’t always done a great job of protecting the free speech of students in school – see, for instance, Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007), the facts of which are perhaps similar to this situation.

  28. 28
    d cwilson

    I repeat that the young man was not slapped in jail by the state;

    You say that as if that means it wasn’t censorship.

    he was asked by his public school to behave more considerately

    If we’re talking about his behavior and not his speech, then yes, the school does have the right and responsibility to discipline him. I’ve already addressed the issue of his behavior in my original post.

    I repeat: a T-shirt is nothing but a piece of cloth. It has no power to harass students unless you let it. It’s his behavior, not his shirt, that should be dealt with.

  29. 29
    karmakin

    So if someone wore a shirt saying “Fags will burn in hell”, that’s just fine?

    Nope. Speech can be an action against other people. It doesn’t matter if it was spoken or just relayed, it’s still saying the same thing. Now, if you want to argue that anti-bullying and anti-harassment laws should be eliminated, be my guest. I just don’t think that’s going to be a very popular position.

  30. 30
    scienceavenger

    What has always baffled me about cases like this is why the school thinks suspension is a punishment. I never saw it as that as a student. Detention is punishment. Suspension is a vacation.

  31. 31
    Synfandel

    I repeat: a T-shirt is nothing but a piece of cloth. It has no power to harass students unless you let it. It’s his behavior, not his shirt, that should be dealt with.

    A slogan on a T-shirt is a form of speech and speech is a behaviour. You’re splitting non-existent hairs.

  32. 32
    heddle

    Synfandel

    A T-shirt slogan looking you in the face as you sit in a classroom day after day that tells you that your life is a waste is a form of bullying

    Oh give me an effin’ break. Bullying? Really?

    Stop him from proselytizing. Expell him if he doesn’t stop. But the t-shirt is bullying? Is your skin but a nano-meter thick? Bullying? Amazing. I’d be embarrassed to admit that that particular T-shirt was bullying.

    What if the T-shirt slogan had said, “If you’re a Jew you should be exterminated”?

    If you see an equivalence there you are truly an idiot. As a Christian, the equivalent in-my-face t-shirt would be

    Life is wasted without Mohammed.

    or

    Life is wasted without Zeus.

    Prophets or deities that I consider false–what do I care if you claim my life is wasted without them? I’ll answer that–I don’t give a rat’s ass if you think my life is wasted for any reason, especially if it is because I don’t accept your deity. Far from bullying–it is nothing.

    Saying “Jews should be exterminated” is to say that we should take concrete murdurous action against a people.

    Again, if you see an equivalence there you are an idiot.

  33. 33
    leni

    A T-shirt slogan looking you in the face as you sit in a classroom day after day that tells you that your life is a waste is a form of bullying

    I agree with heddle: give me an effing break.

    I’d have been more than happy to wear a “Your life is wasted with Jesus”. In fact, I wish more people would. If I’d gone to school with that jackass I probably would have.

    I’m sure we could all think of t-shirt slogans that might constitute bullying. “Let’s all beat on that fag Joe Smith after school today”, for example.

    The fact remains that this t-shirt simply doesn’t do that. If you consider this bullying, then it would be my advice to you to consider getting a job in the service industry until you grow at least one more protective layer of skin.

  34. 34
    erichoug

    My Father was a school administrator for nearly 20 years and I remember that his primary mission was to eliminate anything that might disrupt the learning environment or distract class time to other activities than learning.

    He was firmly against all my Punk rock friends because he said that Gina’s Pink mohawk was distracting and Sam’s safety pins were threatening. In some ways, I kind of agreed with him. The primary purpose of school is to promote learning. But, I suspect that the kids at this canadian school have learned quite a lesson. Namely, what a total dick one lone religious nutbag can be and exactly how NOT to handle him.

    If the school had just banned any clothing with writing on them they probabably would have been fine.

  35. 35
    michaeld

    I’m not sure that it qualifies as bullying in this case but I can think of a situation were it could contribute to a hostile environment for other students.

  36. 36
    conway

    I wish everyone would walk around with their most hateful thought printed on their shirt. It would be like seeing a Confederate Flag bumper sticker; you would know who you were dealing with right off the bat.

    I understand why public school teachers are so paranoid and over-reactionary, though. They are subjected to more seminars and training sessions and memos about “PC” bullshit than the most hapless corporate drone. Add to that the nebulous legal interpretation of “hate.” Stupid speech laws.

    Also: Shatner.

  37. 37
    Fionnabhair

    @24 Zundlel was never actually charged under Canada’s hate speech laws. His initial conviction– which was overturned by the Supreme Court– was for publishing material he knew to be false. I don’t think hate speech laws were on the books in Canada at the time Zundel was initially arrested and charged.

    The first real test of hate speech laws that went to the Supreme Court was R. v. Keegstra, and that conviction was upheld. It was ruled that, while hate speech laws are a violation of free speech under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, those laws are a justifiable limitation on free speech rights, under section 1 of the Charter.

    I read over the hate speech laws again to refresh my memory of them, and Swinimer’s shirt definitely doesn’t meet the criteria. Here is the actual law. Swinimer wasn’t calling for the genocide of non-Christians, so section 318 is out. His shirt wasn’t really inciting hatred against an identifiable group, either, unless you apply a very broad definition of what an identifiable group is (and the definition provided states “‘identifiable group’ means any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation,”) I highly doubt that “any non-Christian” meets the criteria for section 319 to apply. Finally, Swinimer is allowed his shirt under section 319(3)(a), which allows for people to incite hatred if the statement stems from religious belief or comes from a religious text.

    Canada’s hate speech laws do not apply to this situation, so it really cannot be used as a criticism of those laws.

  38. 38
    Michael Heath

    Synfandel writes:

    A T-shirt slogan looking you in the face as you sit in a classroom day after day that tells you that your life is a waste is a form of bullying

    I know bullying, bullying is an enemy of mine. This is not bullying.
    [H/T and apologies to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.]

  39. 39
    glenmorangie10

    Canada’s hate speech laws should probably be revoked. This case has absolutely nothing to do with Canada’s hate speech laws. No charges were laid under the Criminal Code. The school did not invoke or even mention the Criminal Code. I had read several versions of this story, and had not read a single mention of hate speech laws until I read Jason Thibeault’s blog post.

    Canada’s hate speech laws are very specific, fairly limited and thankfully rarely invoked. They are not some sort of legal underpinning for governmental or quasi-governmental action. I have worked for human rights boards and a court of appeal, and I do not recall any decision maker ever mentioning these sections of the Criminal Code. If questions of discrimination, racism, or other bigotry arrive, people turn to the Charter and to the relevant human rights legislation. Respectfully, Jason is simply wrong when he suggested that “this case does have that fatal flaw [hate speech] at its core”. Every detail I have read of this story suggests that the school’s primary concern was to maintain order in the school to let the business of teaching continue, and its secondary concerns may have been their duties under the Human Rights Act. Sections 318, 319, and 320 of the Code have nothing to do with the student, his shirt, his suspension, or the school.

  40. 40
    Jason Thibeault

    For the record, the blockquoted paragraph, which Ed apparently read as meaning that the problem with the t-shirt was that it was offensive and shouldn’t have been allowed, was admittedly unclear. It was a direct response to the statement by the school board that they embrace students wearing expressions of their own belief, but that those expressions would not be tolerated if they denigrated others’ beliefs.

    I was not arguing for or against the school board’s dress code, though I think there shouldn’t be one. I was stating that while Swinimer swore up and down that there was nothing offensive about it (because it “didn’t have vulgarities”), it actually could be offensive to us.

    My opinion on the shirt itself is that he has every right to wear something even grossly offensive to a large majority of people. But, he’d get beaten up for it almost certainly. The “irrelevant” things I focused on were that he’s in a very small, very rural township with a very high percentage of outspoken and intolerant Christians, so any “bullying” he claims to have experienced were almost certainly false.

    My tying in of the hate speech laws was in fact my own addition to the coverage, yes. I’m willing to accept that the provision for people not being in violation of that law if they really earnestly believe the religiously motivated bigotry they spout, means he could not run afoul of those laws, but I still think that law’s existence is in no small part providing the chilling effect that led to the school taking a stand on the wrong thing — rather than stopping Swinimer’s repeated bullying and proselytizing, they suspended him for wearing a mean shirt. They completely screwed this situation up.

    I have a little sympathy for them, though, owing to the fact that they TRIED to stop a religious bully in a school of 2000 in a township of maybe five times that. They tried. They did completely the wrong thing, but at least they tried.

  41. 41
    peterh

    Have another student wear a t-shirt which simply says,

    His T-shirt Is Stupid.

  42. 42
    ischemgeek

    As is often the case in these situations, it’s not quite as simple as the initial reports led readers to believe. Turns out the issue was more of his harrassment of other students than his shirt, and the school (foolishly, I admit) chose the shirt as the straw that broke the camel’s back (thus sending the message that bullying and harrassment = a-ok, but wearing a mean shirt is not cool).

    The kid deserved to be suspended, but not for the shirt, for telling other kids they’re going to hell on a regular basis and harrassing them with proselytization, to the point that the other kids complained to the administration. If someone is preaching on the street, that’s free speech, but if that person follows me around as I go about my business and bothers me when I’m trying to work, that’s harrassment and bullying.

    My issue with the school is not that they suspended him, but rather the ham-handed way in which they handled the situation. The focus should not have been on the shirt, it should have been on his behavior.

  43. 43
    IncredulousMark

    As a Canadian, I, too, am very troubled by our anti-freedom “hate speech” laws. I want to know who the crazies are so let them rant so long as they are not counseling violence. I wrote the following comment on our national newspapers website:

    I fully support this fool’s right to proclaim his insane beliefs on his t-shirt in school. His alleged persistent proselytizing, however, would be too disruptive in school and should not be allowed.
    By banning the t-shirt, the school administration is crediting christianity a power it no longer possesses. I seriously doubt any student viewing that shirt would feel threatened or bullied…they’d just laugh at the quaint whacko with his belief in bronze-age myth. The power of religion is waning rapidly. We’re not afraid of them anymore…and they hate that.

  44. 44
    Synfandel

    Have another student wear a t-shirt which simply says,

    His T-shirt Is Stupid.

    Your solution is add more abusive slogans to the school setting? To start a cold war of printed insults? I doubt that that would be helpful.

    As pacal pointed out, this is not about Canada’s hate speech laws. That’s a complete red herring. It’s also not about one’s basic right to free expression in Canada, which, by the way, is pretty good. It’s about a public school’s right and responsiblity to provide an appropriate learning environment and the limits that necessarily places on students’ freedom of expression while they are at school. You probably have the legal right to wear a T-shirt depicting your favourite Playboy bunny in the alltogether when you’re taking a stroll in your neighbourhood, but that doesn’t mean your public school has to let you wear it in class.

    I remarked earlier:

    I repeat that the young man was not slapped in jail by the state

    …and d cwilson replied:

    You say that as if that means it wasn’t censorship.

    Of course it’s censorship. You say that as if it’s somehow wrong. In a public school classroom setting, when a student doesn’t have the taste and good sense to censor himself—as this student clearly did not—it is entirely appropriate for the school to censor him. You can’t run a public school on anarchist principles.

  45. 45
    Synfandel

    MarkNS wrote:

    I wrote the following comment on our national newspapers website

    As a Canadian, I’d like to know which newspaper is our national newspaper.

    I fully support this fool’s right to proclaim his insane beliefs on his t-shirt in school. His alleged persistent proselytizing, however, would be too disruptive in school and should not be allowed.

    So, telling people that their lives are wasted is okay as long as it’s on a T-shirt, but trying to win people over to your religious view is unacceptable because it’s oral? The former is insulting; the latter is merely annoying.

    By banning the t-shirt, the school administration is crediting christianity a power it no longer possesses.

    It has nothing to do with the power of Christianity. It’s about the insulting slogan. You could take Jesus right out of the slogan and it would still be unacceptable in a classroom setting.

  46. 46
    IncredulousMark

    #45 – Synfandel,

    The Globe and Mail has long had “Canada’s National Newspaper” on its masthead. The only other daily that is almost nationally available is the National Post which is not available in many areas. I didn’t bother to name it in my comment as that was irrelevant to my comment and most readers would never have heard of it.

    I think it is self evident that a t-shirt is less disruptive than someone talking to you. I can not look at a t-shirt quite easily but I can’t not hear someone.

    My point was that this t-shirt was silly and would be seen as silly by any non-christian who read it.

  47. 47
    d cwilson

    You say that as if it’s somehow wrong.

    Because it is wrong. You’re making the same mistake the school made by confabulating (Is that a word?) his behavior with a piece of cloth.

  48. 48
    rork

    Where I live in Michigan, we are working on the wording of anti-bullying rules in the schools. Bans on disruptive speech are worrying. Simply wearing a T-shirt saying “Atheist” could be disruptive some places, if others respond in certain ways (which they may choose to do for tactical reasons).
    It’s been a pain trying to find wording to pin down who is the bad guy when things get overheated.

  49. 49
    democommie

    The kid with the t-shirt = asshole with persecution complex.

    Administrator who decided to suspend him, giving a different reason than the correct one = moron.

    As for whether the shirt itself is intimidating, none of us go to that school and none of us has been in HS in some years, afaia. Aging, by its nature, allows the accretion of experience–if not wisdom–in dealing with the sort of thing that is going on. The administrators’ actions were taken without their giving a correct explanation for what was probably a proper action. Whether the students at the HS felt intimidated is something only they really can know.

  1. 50
    Dude, get out of my face | Butterflies and Wheels

    [...] it a free speech issue or a right not to be proselytized against your will [...]

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