Another Year of Controversy Over “Offensive” Halloween Costumes

By on December 21, 2010

Halloween has come to be seen as a day when people can shed their fear of societal norms and don costumes that they probably wouldn’t wear any other day. These costumes come in many shapes and sizes, and can serve many purposes. Some are meant to ridicule, others to honor, while still others are meant just to be silly. An individual’s costume choice is a manifestation of his or her individuality, especially during college, when choosing a costume is one of the many things that young adults can finally do without parental approval.

At least, that’s the way most Americans expect it to be. Unfortunately, these recently liberated students might have to deal with a new set of judgmental parents who can dole out even more severe punishments: college administrators.

This past October, Thomas V. Wolfe, Syracuse University’s Senior Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs, e-mailed all Syracuse students, encouraging them to "be thoughtful and sensitive when choosing [their] costume[s]," lest their costumes "threaten [their] safety or that of others." Unless a student is dressed as a chariot with razor-sharp blades sticking out, I find it difficult to imagine how any costume could threaten another student’s safety. Costumes sometimes offend and occasionally infuriate others, but in the vast majority of cases cannot inflict physical harm on anyone. It is possible that someone could severely overreact to an offensive costume and provoke a fight, but the resulting confrontation would be the aggressor’s fault, not the costume-wearer’s. As Adam explained in FIRE’s November letter to Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor:

It also cannot be credibly asserted that wearing a Halloween costume, in itself, can be a threat to campus safety. Does Wolfe really believe that Syracuse students will be unable to control their violent impulses if they see a Halloween costume that they believe is offensive? Even if this is indeed what Wolfe believes about Syracuse students, by putting the power to censor in the hands of the most sensitive and violent people in the community, Syracuse effectively enacts a "heckler’s veto," which is anathema to free speech on campus.

What makes Wolfe’s e-mail truly objectionable is that his suggestions are bolstered by the threat of force. While Wolfe himself doesn’t suggest punishing people who wear offensive costumes, Anthony Callisto, Director of the Department of Public Safety at Syracuse, is quoted as saying in an October 14 column in The Daily Orange, "If we detect that there’s a person with an offensive costume, we’d likely require them to remove it, and we would file a judicial complaint." (For more analysis of Callisto’s extreme comments, click here.)

Syracuse claims to be "committed to the principle that freedom of expression is essential to the search for truth, and consequently welcomes and encourages the expression of different and varied opinions, and of dissent." While costume-wearing may not seem terribly important to this principle, what about those who wear costumes that constitute political or social commentary? Should those be censored too?

Lest you believe offensive costumes are rare, you should know that Syracuse was not the only institution that encouraged students to choose culturally sensitive costumes this Halloween. Dean of Students Burgwell J. Howard of Northwestern University, responding to an incident where a student dressed up in blackface last year, provided students with the following guidelines for selecting an appropriate costume in a campus wide e-mail:

  • Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on "making fun" of real people, human traits or cultures?
  • Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
  • Wearing a ‘cultural’ costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or stereotypes?
  • Could someone take offense with your costume and why?

History, culture, and real people are off limits, or at least dangerous? I guess wearing a Nixon mask with bell bottoms would be the ultimate costume crime at Northwestern. After all, it could offend Democrats, Republicans, hippies, AARP members, and victims of the Watergate burglary.

Similarly, Vice Chancellor of Students Affairs Penny Rue of the University of California San Diego, in an e-mail with the chilling subject line of "UCSD Halloween Advisory"which makes me think the Headless Horseman is on the loosesaid:

We also encourage students to think carefully about the costumes they choose to wear and the parties they choose to attend.

We have learned from previous experience that racially stereotyped costumes and themed parties can be harmful to our campus community. At any time a decision to mock other shows a lack of respect, intolerance, and overall poor judgment.

Although it’s probably not the role of college administrators to tell students which costumes they should wear, there’s nothing wrong, from a free speech perspective, when administrators urge students to exhibit sensitivity. In fact, we at FIRE have always asserted that dialogue is the most constructive way to combat insensitivity. The problem is that both schools, in particular Northwestern, maintain "Hate Crimes and Bias Incidents" policies (click here for Northwestern’s and here for UCSD’s) that could easily be construed to punish people wearing such costumes.

While neither Rue nor Howard directly threaten disciplinary action for people wearing offensive costumes in their respective e-mails, just having the aforementioned policies on the books provides them with enough firepower to play the role of both preacher and policeman. For readers skeptical that an insensitive Halloween costume could result in punishment, remember Johns Hopkins University’s punishment of student Justin Park for posting an offensive Halloween party invitation on Facebook a few years ago. (For further analysis on how Northwestern’s policies could be used to punish insensitive costumes, click here.)

Not only is wielding such power over students’ clothing choices anathema in a setting historically known as a bastion for freedom of expression, it is also ineffective in its purported goal of curbing racial insensitivity. When administrators force rather than convince students to be culturally sensitive, they aren’t teaching students to be respectful of other cultures, but to be submissive toward authority.

When students are allowed to make their own choices, they have to deal with the personal repercussions, such as a loss of respect and social standing among their peers. For example, a Northwestern student said that upon seeing a student in blackface, he could only think "Wow. How can someone intelligent enough to be admitted to Northwestern University, ‘Harvard of the Midwest,’ lack the tact to recognize such a racially inflammatory costume choice?" Allowing offensive expression to be aired and fail in the marketplace of ideas teaches a much better and more powerful lesson than simply censoring such expression.