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.