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Universities Give Students Frightening Halloween Assignment: Pick a Costume

Is your “exhausted undergrad” costume ready for tonight’s festivities?

That might be one of the frighteningly few outfit choices remaining if you attend a university expecting you to avoid “cultural appropriation” this year. And beware: The rules are petrifyingly hard to follow.

While institutions are well within their rights to suggest costume considerations to their students, in practice, young adults are choosing their outfits these days under unprecedented levels of scrutiny. This year, these regulations/“suggestions” have come in a variety of forms, including handouts, seminars, and even a “Simple Costume Racism Evaluation and Assessment Meter (or SCREAM)” modeled after the Department of Homeland Security’s post-9/11 terrorism risk chart. Worse, students at some schools face the threat of investigation or punishment for noncompliance with an array of vague and even downright unknowable rules. In FIRE’s opinion, this is where Halloween really starts to get scary on America’s college campuses.

A Creepy Checklist, Bloodcurdling Bias Response Team, and More...

Take, for example, the Costume and Theme Selection Handout the University of Texas at Austin provides to its student organizations, which jams more than thirty separate considerations onto a two-page, multi-point checklist. The gist: Don’t wear anything that could potentially offend someone—or host an event at which another person might do so—without being “prepared to deal with the consequences.” Yes, UT’s Office of the Dean of Students even threatened punishment for students who fail to anticipate any “potential for negative reactions” to a costume or event, and prevent them. It asked students to consider whether a costume was “educational,” or whether they had consulted with “experts” before wearing it. As for those foolish enough to risk actually hosting an event, UT urged students to ask themselves, “No matter your intent, what will be the impact or outcome of the event idea? How could it be perceived by others?”

That’s some real hair-raising stuff for students who might wish to be a little more controversial with their costumes or parties—or, at least, it was as late as last Friday. Over the weekend, a third, introductory page popped up in UT’s posted PDF. The first page, an obvious last-minute addition, now states that “UT Austin does not place limits on students' freedom of expression. We do not regulate their speech or enforce costume guidelines as rules. Our philosophy is to educate students and remind them that they are accountable to each other and that their actions can negatively impact other members of the university community. We offer these voluntary guidelines in that spirit.” Readers can decide for themselves whether these guidelines were truly “voluntary” before UT started making news with them.

Students at the University of Florida at least know more about what they might expect if they offend someone with their costume this year: The university has asked students to report costumes that “reinforce stereotypes” to the school’s Bias Education and Response Team. The team promises to “educate those that were involved, and to provide support by connecting those that were impacted to the appropriate services and resources.” Sounds like some real Halloween fun!

At Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, student government leaders came together to direct fellow students to avoid “cultural appropriation.” Of course, students have the right to advocate for this position and to work to convince others to agree with them. But at the Oregon schools, the specter of punishment for students with noncompliant students was nevertheless implied. “As active and respectful members of the OSU and the UO communities, we expect everyone to not engage in cultural appropriation,” wrote the presidents of the UO and OSU student governments, to which Reason’s Robby Soave rhetorically asked the logical follow-up question: or what?

At Tufts University, student leaders issued a far spookier warning, blatantly warning that “There are consequences for wearing an offensive costume.” What are they? If one believes the letter, “[t]he range of response for students whose actions make others in [the] community feel threatened or unsafe, or who direct conduct towards others that is offensive or discriminatory” could include a police investigation, according to Mary Pat McMahon, Tufts’ dean of student affairs.

This Year’s Spine-Chilling Specter: Administrative Micromanagement

All of this also begs the question whether the micromanagement of Halloween on college campuses contributes to students’ educational growth. After all, shouldn’t that be the aim of any directive from an educational institution?

Last year’s major Halloween-on-campus story revolved around Yale University lecturer Erika Christakis, a child development expert, who sent a now-famous email to students asking them that very question:

It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identity, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.


Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. … Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

The furor that ensued over Christakis’ email eventually led to her resignation and that of her faculty-member husband from their roles as residential college leaders, and, eventually, to Erika Christakis’ decision to leave Yale altogether. (FIRE has been critical of Yale’s initial hesitancy to defend its professors’ right to express their opinions on campus.)

Whether or not you agree with Christakis’ take—that college students are mature enough to decide what they wear, and that other students, if offended, are similarly capable of initiating a college-level discussion about it—it’s undeniable that student and administrative reactions to Halloween continue to present a threat to freedom of expression in higher education. So as you munch on your candy corn this Halloween, spare a thought for college students on these campuses and across the country who risk earning an unwitting visit to their campus’ closest analog to Salem, Massachusetts, the moment they step out the door.

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