Halloween: A Time for Expression–Or Censorship?

October 25, 2011

Colleges tell their students time and time again what they may express and how they may express it. These days, even Halloween costume choices are under fire—or even censored.

Underneath the themed parties, trick-or-treating, and haunted houses, Halloween is about being someone you’re not. The Halloween costume is pure self-expression; we exercise the freedom not only to be whomever or whatever we desire, but also to explore our own interpretations of those characters.

College campuses nevertheless keep trying to police Halloween costumes. They really need to stop; it’s making them look ridiculous.

First, let’s review what happened before Halloween last year. Administrators from at least three universities sent emails to students warning them of the dangers of wearing "offensive" costumes on campus. Incidentally, all three of those universities—Northwestern University, Syracuse University, and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD)—are "red light" schools, each maintaining at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.

At UCSD, the letter came from Penny Rue, the university’s vice chancellor. In addition to noting that wearing a costume can reduce inhibitions and that students should think carefully about the events they choose to attend on Halloween night, the letter notes the importance of sensitivity when deciding how to dress:

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 others shows a lack of respect, intolerance, and overall poor judgment. In addition, because of the ubiquitous nature of technology, a poor decision made today can live on indefinitely on the internet.

At UC San Diego we expect all members of our community to use good judgment and look out for the wellbeing and safety of fellow students.

This paternalistic email reflects the in loco parentis mindset among so many administrators at America’s colleges and universities. While professors and administrators should encourage students to think critically, they should not seek to dictate the values that students "should" espouse.

This problem was even more apparent at Northwestern, where the Halloween email to students came from Dean Burgwell J. Howard. In this case, the university provided a set of questions to consider when deciding on a costume, citing cultural insensitivity and Northwestern’s commitment to a freely expressive, but also inclusive, environment:

So, if you are planning to dress-up for Halloween, or will be attending any social gatherings planned for that weekend, please ask yourself these questions before deciding upon your costume choice:

  • 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?

Northwestern is a community that values free expression as well as inclusivity. And while students, graduate and undergraduate, have the right to express themselves, we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.

The letter simply encouraged students to think critically about their costume choices and how they could affect others, and importantly did not require such analysis. But as we mentioned on The Torch last year, reasonable interpretations of this request are so broad that the letter could, in practice, chill or silence student expression, due to a lack of clarity regarding what is acceptable under this ill-defined disciplinary standard.

This year, the same kind of administrative pressure is being placed on college students again. Just yesterday, FIRE learned that Jeff Howard, associate dean of students at East Tennessee State University, sent around a similar email regarding offensive costumes; indeed, the email used the exact same language as Northwestern’s email last year. ETSU’s letter, however, also included this paragraph:

ETSU is a community that values free expression as well as inclusiveness. A portion of our Values Statement reads that "PEOPLE come first, are treated with dignity and respect…" and "DIVERSITY of people and thought is respected". Students have the right to express themselves, however, we trust that you will actively avoid any circumstance that might threaten our sense of community, or that disrespect, alienate, or ridicule segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief, or gender expression.

Because there is no hard and fast metric for determining what circumstances "might threaten our sense of community," this statement from ETSU, along with the rest of the letter, creates an environment where students will rationally self-censor rather than risk punishment for stepping across a vague line defined by administrators. Without knowing whether or not they will be facing disciplinary action for speaking their minds, whether through speech or costume, students are much more likely to not express themselves at all.

Although we haven’t seen an outright ban on "offensive" costumes this year, we saw it last year at Syracuse University. The Department of Public Safety, taking Halloween costume censorship to a laughable extreme, cautioned students via email that costumes determined by the DPS to be "offensive" would be required to be removed, and that students choosing to wear such costumes would be referred to the university’s Office of Judicial Affairs.

The email, publicized in this Daily Orange article, was sent in coalition with the then-new "STOP Bias" program, which sought to stop "bias" on campus.

FIRE’s Adam Kissel wrote for The Torch on the potential abuses and overreaching of Syracuse’s stated policies:

If Syracuse University wants to be taken seriously as a marketplace of ideas, it will make sure that all students understand that Syracuse will honor its promises of free speech. Instead, Syracuse is encouraging its students to anonymously inform the campus authorities about one another’s biases. For instance, if you want to report somebody’s "[i]nappropriate verbal comment," Syracuse wants to know who said it, but your complaint can remain anonymous.

If you want to treat someone "negatively" because of their political affiliation, such as by "[t]elling jokes,"that’s out, too. No more political jokes at Syracuse!

Where does this stop? When is a Halloween costume offensive or discriminatory? And who is to decide?

One key way that students learn is to encounter ideas with which they disagree. And one of the fundamental tenets of a good academic environment is protection of the ability to speak one’s mind. We at FIRE hope that this Halloween, at every university, students are allowed to express themselves freely through costume—whether they choose to be a mouse, Benjamin Franklin, or anything in between.