Dude, get out of my face

Is it a free speech issue or a right not to be proselytized against your will issue?

Is there a difference?

Not really; it’s more that the two are in tension. People have a right to proselytize, but they also have a right to refuse to be proselytized. What do you do when the two clash?

Or, more pertinently, maybe you think people don’t have a right to refuse to be proselytized. But I mean actively proselytized as opposed to passively. No, people don’t have a right to obliterate all sources of proselytization, but yes, they have a right to tell other people to stop pestering them.

The Nova Scotia student who was suspended for wearing a T shirt saying “Life is wasted without Jesus” after he’d been told not to, was doing more than just wearing a T shirt.

Students said William Swinimer has been preaching and making them feel uncomfortable, and the shirt was the last straw so they complained.

“He’s told kids they’ll burn in hell if they don’t confess themselves to Jesus,” student Riley Gibb-Smith said.

Katelyn Hiltz, student council vice-president, agreed the controversy didn’t begin with the T-shirt.

“It started with him preaching his religion to kids and then telling them to go to hell. A lot of kids don’t want to deal with this anymore,” she said.

And they shouldn’t have to. They’re a captive audience. They have to be in school. Having to be in school shouldn’t mean having to be harangued by a religious zealot. That would apply to an atheist zealot too, by the way (but atheists are so much less likely to do that kind of thing, and threats of hell are right out).


  1. says

    I also covered this, including a follow-up you might want to see. Swinimer’s dad pulled him from school when they started hosting voluntary seminars (which he could have opted out of) on how to discuss religion without being disrespectful to one another. He waved around the Bible while saying that as long as they weren’t teaching the 3 Rs, he wouldn’t be going to that school.

    Yes, seriously. He started a religiously-inspired three ring circus, and now he’ll abstain from the fallout.

  2. says

    Ah yes, and I see we picked out the same passage to quote.

    Swinimer sounds like a considerable bully. God I’m sick of bullies playing martyr.

  3. 'Tis Himself says

    Swinimer sounds like a considerable bully.

    Both father and son are bullies.

  4. says

    May I concur that the speech of bullies should not be protected? Not in a school setting, not in a workplace, and not in a residential situation. As an adult, if someone harasses me, I can go to the authorities and file a restraining order. But if I’m a kid at school, I must subject myself to day after day of harassment because the perpetrator has a right to free speech or religion or whatever? I don’t think so.

  5. avh1 says

    Maybe Ophelia or one of the FtB commenters who knows more about Canada can tell me but will acting like martyrs benefit the Swinimers? I don’t know enough about Nova Scotia to feel like I have an accurate grasp of whether people outside of a small band of their co-religionists will sympathise with them.

  6. Wonk says

    As an honest-to-goodness Canadian, religion is almost something of a dirty little secret in most of the country: it’s assumed you have one, but discussing it in public is vulgar. Politicians who try to make a big deal of their religion (viz: Stockwell Day) are usually ridiculed, and it’s especially noteworthy that Alberta, easily the most socially-conservative and overtly-Christian province in the country, recently reversed an election result on the grounds that the party widely expected to win was too right-wing on social issues. (And we aren’t talking about lock-up-your-uterus, kill-your-gays hard-right views: the party had proposed that individual civil servants might be excluded from issuing marriage licenses to LGB couples, that sort of thing. Not *good*, but also pretty milquetoast as political homophobia runs.)

    Here in Toronto, every major paper carried the dad pulling the kid out of school with roughly equal emphasis to that used on the original story, and the consensus appears to be that the whole freedom-of-speech thing was a canard all along.

  7. fredbloggs says

    What was the nature of Mr Swinimer’s proselityzing? Was he interrupting classes? Was he cornering other pupils in broom cupboards?

    True, this is a school environment, but kids are going to have to deal with controversy in their lives, and surely this could be as much a learning experience for them as anything they learn in classes.

    As long as the other pupils can walk away, or respond with force to his arguments (i.e., he cannot play the “I am offended” card), then censoring him seems to be the wrong way to go.

    And ultimately, he will learn that there are consequences to his actions.

  8. says

    Charles Sullivan – Would who respond to his argument? Are you asking me, or a commenter, or everyone? And is that a request, or an informational question? If the latter, would I/someone/everyone respond to Ed’s argument if what? What are the conditions for your conditional question (if that’s what it is)?

  9. says


    This isn’t about dealing with controversy. Or people with views different from yours. The school must be a safe environment, not an environment where you’re told (over and over) that you’re going to burn in hell. Being able to walk away does not magically make harassment harmless. You don’t tell someone who is being stalked at home or harassed at the workplace to suck it up because it’s building character (or maybe you’re enough of an asshole to do just that). Those who have fewer resources available to them and who have less life experience and less advanced cognitive development (i.e. children) should have even more protection against bullying and harassment, not less.

  10. FredBloggs says

    Ibis – I don’t know about your school, or schools in other countries, but I can’t remember a single moment in my school where I was protected from the (sometimes offensive to me) opinions of my fellow pupils.

    Incidentally, can you have a rational discussion without calling someone an “asshole”? Isn’t that bullying behaviour?

  11. Charles Sullivan says

    I’m asking what you, Ophelia, think of Ed’s argument, and why you think he is mistaken.

  12. Happiestsadist says

    Wonk, as a transplant to Toronto, I’ll kindly tell you that religious politics isn’t the same all over the country as it is in TO. And considering our fascist of a mayor, I wouldn’t say that’s such a bad thing. In the Maritime provinces, where I’m from and where this happened, religion is a much bigger deal. I used to get beaten up at school for believing in evolution, and was once subject to a hilariously inept attempt at stoning for it. Over there, there is a lot of the lock-up-your-uterus (Hmm, not at all obvious from the lack of access to repro healthcare) and kill-the-gays (How about that latest lethal beating in Halifax?) rhetoric.

  13. says

    I think any given individual has the right to tell me, once, that I am going to hell when I die for failing to suck up to their favorite deity. And I in turn have the right to tell them to go to hell then and there. And then they must do so (in the non-literal colloquial sense).

    And this is a reasonable time-place-and-manner restriction on both of our free speech rights on that subject.

  14. julian says

    And ultimately, he will learn that there are consequences to his actions.

    Not if you have anything to do about it. You just gave him a blank check to be as disruptive as he pleases. No strings attached, no consideration given to what’s said, where or to whom. Just the A-OK.

  15. Happiestsadist says

    Also, Wonk, I’ll point out the current attempts to challenge the legality of abortion in Canada are coming out of Ontario.

  16. says

    It’s an interesting issue. The US, at least, is rather liberal with free speech rights for students. I did some research on this and then blogged about it when Hemant at the Friendly Atheist posted about a high school student who wore a Jesus costume to school for “Fictional Character Day.” One thing I found was that US courts have upheld the right of students even to wear a shirt with the following text: “Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder! Some issues are just black and white!”

    On the other hand, free speech is limited when it falls under the category of harassment, which Swinimer’s behavior (under US law) might have. It’s difficult to give an objective definition of “harassment” though, and it seems to me that the effects of bullying/harassment are somewhat up to the person who is their brunt. Not to blame the victim or anything, but the kind of treatment that a thin-skinned individual would feel as harassment may not qualify as such to someone more thick-skinned. If the objective of the law is to protect people from the psychological effects of harassment… well that is a moving target. What if a person or group of people legitimately feel harassed by someone simply wearing a shirt (or a Jesus costume) that expresses their beliefs? Would the anti-harassment law then apply to speech that was under other circumstances protected?

  17. fredbloggs says

    Tim – I don’t think anyone here knows the exact nature of Mr Swinimer’s proselytising – but more that on person on this blog has tried to characterise it as harassment or bullying. I think your correct in that the definitions are frequently subjective – there may be cases which clearly fall either side of the line, but I don’t think this is one of them.

  18. avh1 says

    Thank you Wonk for clarifying that for me.

    Also Fred your idea that this should be allowed because it is good training for future life is incorrect in at least one area – this sort of behaviour (correctly, in my view) *wouldn’t* be allowed in a work environment. If someone goes about telling their work colleagues that they are going to hell then they are, at the least, going to be firmly told not to do that (unless the place of work is very religious, or the management are lazy or religious themselves).

  19. fredbloggs says

    avh1 – true, the work environment is a (usually) a private space where companies apply a lot of regulations governing behaviour which are extra to the law of the land.


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