Is this Hate speech?
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.?
?There was no profane language, there was no drug references, there was nothing inappropriate on [my] shirt?
The Grade 12 student?s act of defiance has shone a light on the balance schools attempt to strike between accommodating all faiths and differing viewpoints while trying to keep the peace.
It has also reignited the debate about whether students should have the right to express their beliefs at school even at risk offending others.
Mr. Swinimer wonders why his shirt has only now become so controversial, especially when he?s seen other students around school wearing T-shirts with slogans like ?Hail Satan.?
?There was no profane language, there was no drug references, there was nothing inappropriate on [my] shirt,? he said.
South Shore Regional School Board superintendant Nancy Pynch-Worthylake said students are indeed allow to express their religious beliefs at school.
?I know it?s out there that somehow we don?t allow religious beliefs in school, which is absolutely false,? she said. ?The only time is when we have students come forward and say ?I really feel this is a criticism of my beliefs? and that?s what happened in this situation.?
The students who complained to the principal took the shirt?s slogan to mean ?Your life is wasted without Jesus,? she said, which could reasonably be construed as a judgment.
Mr. Swiniman said it?s a quote from the Bible book Philippians.
This case was handled the same way schools in the board tend to handle any complaint about T-shirt slogans; complaints about offensive clothing do come up every now and then, Ms. Pynch-Worthylake added.
?Is it obvious that someone would be silly to think it?s offensive? Well no ? we can kind of see both [sides]?
?In meeting with students, we would ask ?Is it blatantly offensive? And in this case it was ?No.? Is it obvious that someone would be silly to think it?s offensive? Well no ? we can kind of see both [sides],? she said. ?And then in meeting and talking with students we would say ?The easy way to deal with this respectfully would be to just wear a different shirt.??
But Mr. Swinimer wasn?t going to wear a different shirt, and defiance ?especially repeated defiance ? is grounds for suspension, Ms. Pynch-Worthylake said.
The school board issued a statement clarifying that ?students may choose to wear clothing that embraces their beliefs. However, it is expected that students will not wear clothing with messages that may offend others? beliefs, race, religion, culture or lifestyle.?
The school board is also consulting a human rights expert to assess whether the shirt can indeed be considered offensive, Ms. Pynch-Worthylake said, adding that she hoped Mr. Swinimer will be back at school as soon as possible.
The Grade 12 student said he continues to wear the shirt because he has been ?bullied? about his faith in the past. Though he?s not usually one to rock the boat, he felt he had to take a stand this time and defend his views.
Varrick Day, who is pastor at Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Bridgewater, N.S. where Mr. Swinimer and his family worship, said he encouraged the shy student to speak out.
?This is not about the T-shirt ? it?s about our children and our grandchildren having the right of freedom of speech and religion,? he said. ?That?s being taken away in our schools.?