In the News: Jesus Shirts and ‘Hate Speech’

When does freedom of speech become offensive?  This week Elmer Thiessen at First Things offered some thoughtful commentary on a recent school squabble in Nova Scotia. 

In short, a high-school student, William Swinimer, wore a t-shirt for several days to his Nova Scotia high school.  The shirt proclaimed “Life is Wasted Without Jesus.”  School officials asked Swinimer to desist, since his shirt offended some of his classmates.  Swinimer refused.  The school suspended him. 

This is an issue that has been aired repeatedly south of the border as well, most famously with the US Supreme Court’s 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines.

As Thiessen notes, school officials agreed that students have a right to free speech.  But in this case, district administrators concluded that Swinimer’s shirt “unreasonably criticized” the beliefs of non-Christian students.  In other words, it was not the proclamation of Jesus’ awesomeness that was offensive, but rather the implication that anyone who doesn’t find Him awesome is wasting his or her life. 

Most interesting, Thiessen considers the commentary of Canadian journalist Emma Teitel.  Teitel came to this conclusion about the t-shirt controversy: “There is a great difference between cherishing a belief and wielding it like a weapon.”   

This case highlights one of the trickiest themes of life in Fundamentalist America.  Conservatives, like William Swinimer, often frame their public activism in the language of civil rights.  In this case, Swinimer insisted on his freedom of speech.  He claimed to be standing up against an anti-Christian, anti-Canadian regime.  Non-Fundamentalists and anti-Fundamentalists, however, usually feel that these claims are made in bad faith, no pun intended.  It is seen as something akin to the creepy National Association for the Advancement of White People.  In this understanding, claiming equal rights for a group that has been historically dominant is only a ruse, meant to squelch the long-stolen rights of authentic minority groups.  This seems to have been the conclusion of the school administrators.  Swinimer’s shirt, in their opinion, did more than express his religious beliefs.  It denigrated all other beliefs, including ones that had a distressing history of persecution in Canadian public life.

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  1. Ed Brandt

     /  June 9, 2012

    I used to teach health and fitness courses at a university. One day, I came to class wearing a shirt with a large red “A” on the chest, from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. It was my last clean t-shirt, so I didn’t really choose to wear it, but didn’t really think twice about it, either.

    One of my students asked me what the shirt meant, so I told her. She was horrified, and threatened to complain to my supervisor about my “offensive” shirt. In her eyes, wearing a shirt supporting a foundation that argues in favor of the rights of atheists should not have been allowed in a university classroom. But wait, there’s more: She was wearing a shirt that said “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” It was late August.

    Despite my personal opinions of religion, I never really got offended by religious shirts in my classes. I don’t really see the “Life is wasted” shirt as an issue, as long as the atheists and the Muslims and the Jews and the Pastfarians get equal treatment. I do agree that if a shirt denigrates another religion (or lack of religion) then the action would have been appropriate.

    Where is that line, though? Had the shirt said “You’re going to hell if you don’t believe what I believe” or “I’m going to be laughing at you from heaven while you burn in hell,” well, those would certainly be going too far. “God Hates Fags”? Yeah. Line-crossing. This statement is a passive one, and doesn’t really point to “you.”

    I would be interested to hear how the same school handles atheist or Buddhist or Scientologist shirts. Well, not Scientologist, obviously. I mean, those people are whacky.

    The last part of the puzzle, though, is just how much freedom of speech do high school students enjoy? This is a much more general question, which needs to be answered in a non-religious context. On one side are the “They’re a bunch of kids who don’t know how to handle freedom of speech” crowd, and on the other are the “Treat them like adults and let them express themselves” group. The Supreme Court seems to be in the former camp.

    For instance, the “Bong Hits for Jesus” decision was a travesty in my mind, but I’ve mercifully never procreated, and have no idea how to handle teenagers.

    I guess SCOTUS feels it’s best to break teenagers’ spirits early on, so they don’t harbor the illusion they will have free speech as adults. You don’t agree that your speech is limited? Go tell your boss what you really think of him, then tell him he can’t fire you because you are “exercising your freedom of speech.”

    • @Ed, Right on. The question is where we find that line. It seems wherever we bite into this particular sour apple we find half a worm. For instance, if we try to make the rule that our speech should not offend others, then we bump up against the problem of the neurotically easily offended. Plus, if we could not offend anyone, there would be very little room left over for political speech of any kind. Or, if we say the offense must be intentional, we create a Confederacy-size loophole, as with those folks who fly the Confederate Battle Flag and simply say they have no idea why people could be offended by that. If ignorance were a valid defense, then Americans (and Canadians, and Scots, and etc.) would never need to hire defense lawyers.
      I think another part of this puzzle is the notion that many Christians honestly do not understand how others can be offended by their theology. For many Christians, it is a core belief of their faith that Jesus is the Way, the Life and the Truth. Anyone who wants to get to heaven, Christians believe, MUST go through Jesus. To many outsiders, however, that kind of language sounds like an eternal threat. When that NJ teacher was accused of telling his students that non-Christians would go to hell, I think he meant it as a way to explain his beliefs. At least one student took it as a threat of eternal damnation and hellfire. Seems as if we’ve got that same kind of miscommunication in this case.

      • The comments thread on Thiessen’s article had a guy arguing (interestingly, I thought) that the school is a secular institution and in that context, all expressions of religion are restricted. The idea is that everyone is agreeing to share a neutral space, I guess.

        Being neither Canadian nor a lawyer, I’ve no idea if his argument holds legal water, but it’s one reasonable suggestion for how the problem could be handled.

        But yeah, it just seems a bizarre case to make an example of. It’s hard to imagine anyone being offended.

  2. Noah Bennett

     /  October 14, 2012

    It doesn’t matter what religion you follow. Religion is just a label. Yes, I am a christian but that does not matter. What matters is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus is why we are living today, he died for us. And how do we repay him? We spit in his face. Now I am only 14 years old but in my eyes, now i can pray and ask jesus to forgive me for all my sin. But so can anyone. Now you may think your’re saved because you got baptised or just because there was that one moment in your life where you prayed, but that doesn’t count. Because what most everyone want’s(no matter the religion) is to go to heaven after they die. But they want to go to heaven without jesus in the picture. You can only be accepted into heaven if you start a relationship with jesus. But you may not feel the same. However if your plan is to get into heaven without having a strong relationship with Jesus, You are quite mistaken. Now I think it’s wrong that this Student was suspended for spreading the gospal. Even if he was just spreading it useing his shirt. And the students that were”offended” are running from God. They obviously do not know god. Now i would’ve understood if his shirt was trying to spread a religion, but it wasn’t. The student was just trying to get people to realize that there life is not complete with the heavenly father.

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