Clem Slone was on his usual 20-minute bus ride to school last week when something came over him. The news that morning was all about President Bush's address to troops at Fort Bragg Army base, urging support for the war in Iraq. Listening to Modest Mouse on his headphones, Slone took out a piece of paper and wrote, "Fuck War, Fuck Bush, Fuck Amerikkka. Where is the love? Is there any?" Then he attached the paper to the front of his T-shirt with a paper clip.
Thus began an unusual day at Wake Technical Community College for the 29-year-old student from Raleigh. "I wasn't thinking to offend anyone," Slone says. "I was just at a point mentally thinking, 'When are people going to start questioning this war?' It seems like people just don't care, or if they do care that they don't verbalize it."
Slone headed to the cafeteria for breakfast, where a faculty member asked him to remove the sign. Moments later, as Slone was taking a seat, Dean of Students Paul A. Norman approached him and told him to take off the sign.
"I said, 'I'm not going to take it off,' and he said, 'Well, can we talk?' And I said, 'Yeah. I'm about to have some breakfast so sit down and we'll talk.'" Slone says Norman told him the sign would offend people and that it was inappropriate for school. He asked if Slone would remove the word "fuck" from the sign. Slone offered to replace the U with an asterisk in the word, but Norman wasn't satisfied; he soon left, and Slone didn't wait for him to come back.
On his way to the library, Slone says students complimented him on the sign. Some wanted to talk about the war. Inside, he printed out material on the First Amendment. Waiting in the hall before Spanish class, Slone says he was talking to classmates about the war when another faculty member asked him to take off the sign. "She's like, 'Well, that's offensive and it's inappropriate for school,' and I said, 'I'm not taking it off.'"
Soon Norman returned with the school's security and safety manager, who asked that Slone come out into the hallway, where they showed him the student handbook's entry about "profane, lewd or obscene speech or like expression," including language and symbols worn on clothing.
"We talked about what's appropriate and what's not appropriate," Slone says. "I said, well, my shirt might offend people, but what about the students who come to school wearing confederate flag T-shirts? They offend me, but they have every right to wear those T-shirts. What's the difference?" (Slone explained that the spelling of "Amerikkka" represents "intolerance and hatred, selfishness, ignorance," not the nation as a whole.)
Unswayed by Slone's argument, Norman and the security manger escorted the student to the parking lot where they continued to talk. "It was a very peaceful conversation," Slone says. "There was no hostility between any of us three. I said, 'I'm not taking it off and I'm not leaving unless you throw me off school grounds,' and they said, 'We're throwing you off.'" The security guard initially told Slone he couldn't wait for the bus on school grounds, then later relented, but Slone walked off campus anyway and went to a coffee shop where he contacted the Independent.
"I told them that I'd be coming to school tomorrow with another shirt," Slone explained, "and I actually made a promise to the dean that I would not put any curse words on it. He said, 'Well, if I deem it offensive then I'll ask you to take it off.'"
Norman declined to comment on the incident, but Sherry Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the college, says the dean was following school policy by responding to students' comments to faculty.
"He was told that he could change the sign to read differently--it wasn't a matter of his expressing his opinion, it was the profanity involved," she said. "He did not want to do that." Nor did Slone choose to appeal the dean's decision. "He was very polite and everything was handled very well, very professionally and very tactfully by the student. He chose to be removed from campus, and that was his choice."
Mitchell says the dean's office would have responded that way to any complaint about a message on a student's clothing. No one's ever complained about confederate flag shirts in the three years she's been at Wake Tech, she says, but if they did, she said, "It would be addressed."
That night, Slone made a new statement with permanent marker on a plain khaki T. "It costs over $200 billion to kill Iraqis but it costs nothing to love your fellow man. Friendship is priceless," read the front. On the back, he wrote, "Where there is love there is life. Hatred leads to destruction--Mahatma Gandhi." The words "kill," "love," and "friendship" were written in red, the rest in black. He wore it Friday. He said he received several compliments, some from faculty, but no negative reactions. As for the dean, Slone says, "I said hello to him but he didn't say anything to me, so I don't know."