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FIRE, Carol Iannone, and the Amy Gutmann Halloween Costume Controversy

On Phi Beta Cons today, Carol Iannone criticizes FIRE’s reaction to the Halloween party picture of University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann with Saad Saadi, a Penn student who dressed as a suicide bomber for Halloween. Iannone says, in part:

Contrary to the libertarian view, a good, free, ordered society does not simply proceed on its own. And I am shocked at conservatives and at FIRE for giving her a pass, and chalking up the costume to the ‘freedom’ they fear will somehow be curtailed if persons in authority are asked to stand for civil behavior, and likening the costume to other scary monstrous costumes associated with Halloween…

I admire much of what FIRE does but I think they are wrong with their libertarian absolutism and repudiation of all in loco parentis. As I’ve said before, I think colleges should exercise some degree of guidance and supervision and cultivation of students, and not pretend that they are fully mature adults, which they are so self-evidently not.

This type of “social conservative” critique is common among those who disagree with various positions that FIRE takes. Yet in this case, following Iannone’s advice would be a serious mistake for those who actually hold socially conservative views.

Iannone states that people in authority should be “asked to stand for civil behavior.” What she does not seem to realize is that the average college administrator’s version of “civil behavior” is likely to be radically different from her own views. University administrators do things like punish RAs who host private Bible studies while simultaneously praising those who put on productions of the Vagina Monologues. Are these the people that Iannone really wants to be in charge of enforcing “civil behavior” among students?

To be clear, FIRE supports rights on campus for all students, because we believe that values like free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and due process are vital for the functioning of a free society. But there is an undeniable irony that a social conservative—part of the group perhaps most likely to be censored on the modern college campus—should be arguing for greater restrictions and increased administrative discretion.

The same goes for the institution of in loco parentis. Iannone writes that colleges should not pretend that students “are fully mature adults, which they are so self-evidently not.” Many college students these days are not your typical 18-22 year olds. Jihad Daniel from William Paterson University was 63. Surely even Iannone would agree that in loco parentis is inappropriate for Daniel (whose behavior was undoubtedly seen as “uncivil” by those who tried to punish him for his beliefs). More importantly, however, in loco parentis is simply wrong for students who can drive, vote, and serve in the military. Infantilizing young adults is not the solution to campus problems.

Further, attempts by administrators to impose propriety on campus often have absurd results. Consider Gettysburg College, where every step in romantic or sexual encounters must have continuing verbal consent. (“May I gaze into your eyes in a suggestive fashion? May I hold your hand? May I kiss you on the cheek?” et cetera and ad nauseum.) This situation reminds me most of my ninth grade school dance, where my date and I were driven to and from the dance by my date’s mother. But even she would let me hold my date’s hand without asking for a binding contract.

Today is Election Day, and on FIRE’s homepage we have a report on college students being denied fundamental political rights at three different colleges and universities. In each case, college administrators were involved, and in each case, those being denied their rights were conservative students. FIRE is proud to say that we would defend these students regardless of their political beliefs. But this goes to show even if social conservatives wish to act merely from their own self-interest rather than the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution, they should not argue that administrators should exercise greater power over student expression. What FIRE has seen over and over again is the disregard too many college administrators have for the basic and fundamental rights of students of any political perspective. Putting more power in their hands to govern expressive behavior, whether it be under the guise of “civility,” “politeness,” “tolerance,” “diversity,” or anything else, would be a grave mistake.

UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, on his Volokh Conspiracy blog, makes the point that on Halloween, “[y]ou’re told to dress as someone scary. A suicide bomber is scary. It should probably be scarier than a skeleton or a ghost. Sounds like you did your Halloween duty. And I don’t think that wearing a costume for Halloween endorses the likely sentiments of the person being depicted, be he pirate, bomber, gangster, or zombie.” FIRE always says that “you don’t have the right not to be offended,” and that adage applies when the “offensive” material is anti-American just as much as it applies when the “offensive” material is considered racist or sexist.

There are far more serious issues than what a college student wears to a Halloween party—even one with the university president. An offensive Halloween costume lasts a few hours and then vanishes, most likely never to be seen again. But the precedent of punishing a student for wearing the costume or banning certain costumes from being worn will last for years. If the price of liberty on campus is that we may have to live with the possibility of being offended by Halloween costumes, it’s a price well worth paying.

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