More Free Speech Problems in Canada

More Free Speech Problems in Canada May 9, 2012

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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