Shirtgate: Virgin sweats it

14 August 2015 - 02:05 By Katharine Child

A spat at a local gym has created a constitutional debate after a member was thrown out over his T-shirt. Virgin Active Gym allegedly asked Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions national coordinator Muhammed Desai not to wear his T-shirt, which made reference to Israel as an apartheid state, to his gym sessions.Virgin Active said his shirt had "generated strong complaints from members".The BDS movement calls on people to boycott trade with Israel in solidarity with the plight of Palestinians.Desai claims that when he asked Virgin Active to show him the policies that said he could not wear the shirt, he received no response and decided to confront the gym's management.When he arrived at Virgin Active gym in Houghton on Wednesday night in the shirt he was asked to leave."He was intent on making a political statement and generating confrontation. We asked him to leave the gym and called the police," Virgin Active said.Wits law professor Bonita Meyersfeld said there were competing legal rights at play. She said while the right of admission was reserved, there was also a right to freedom of expression."In my opinion the right to freedom of expression is a more robust right than the right to property," she said.Michael Bagraim, a former lawyer, said Desai's constitutional right to freedom of expression "trumped other legal rights"."You can't curtail freedom of speech rights, even on private property," he said.But Meyersfeld said establishments had a legal right to ask people to adhere to a dress codeIt is not clear if Desai breached Virgin Active's dress code, which states: "Suitable and appropriate clothing must be worn at all times."Virgin Active was criticised by hundreds of people on Twitter yesterday.But brand expert Sarah Britten said: "I don't think there will be damage to Virgin Active. Cancelling a gym membership is painful. How many will do it when push comes to shove?"Desai has asked Virgin Active to retract the instruction that he and others are not allowed to enter a Virgin Active gym wearing the BDS T-shirt.Failure to do so will result in his laying a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission, Desai said.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.