Civil Liberties

The Campus Halloween Costume Wars Reveal That College Free Speech Is Undead

Criticize offensive costumes. Don't prohibit them.



Are you a college student who can't decide whether your Halloween costume is potentially offensive? Here's a helpful infographic that might make things clearer.

Just kidding. That infographic, posted by administrators in the student affairs department of North Carolina State University and noticed by Campus Reform, is probably the least helpful Halloween costume guide ever made. The only reasonable takeaway is that any costume edgier than a plain white sheet should be avoided.

Administrators at universities all over the country are eager to tell students what not to wear in order to mitigate any chances of someone's feelings being harmed. At State University of New York at Geneseo, in fact, there are no fewer than five officials standing by to correct students' politically-incorrect costume choices—and their friends, according to The College Fix.

What's wrong with administrators warning kids about offensive costumes? Nothing—if it actually always stopped there. But non-PC costumer-wearers are routinely punished for their dalliances. Recently, a fraternity at the University of California-Los Angeles was suspended and investigated for hosting a "Kanye West" theme party where students dressed up as West and Kim Kardashian. Costumes and theme parties that are perceived as insulting toward certain groups constantly get students in real, institutional trouble on campus. These punishments fly in the face of two basic facts: 1) students' offensive speech is broadly protected by the First Amendment and contractual agreements with private colleges, 2) professors, rather than administrators, should be tasked with educating students about sensitivity. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

Over the years, FIRE has amassed a veritable witches' brew of horror stories in which colleges and universities demand that students refrain from wearing "offensive" costumes.

Public institutions violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression when they do so. Courts have held that offensive—even racist—costumes and party themes are expressive conduct protected by the Constitution. (See Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University, 993 F.2d 386 (4th Cir. 1993), which held a university could not punish a fraternity for an "ugly woman" contest that the university said created a "hostile learning environment.") Private colleges, while not beholden to the First Amendment, often breach their own promises to support free speech on campus.

Students don't have the right to wear costumes without being criticized. But they do have the right to wear costumes period. The fact that this is something campus bureaucrats scarcely acknowledge in their zeal to discourage or prohibit all offensive speech is a symptom of the sickly state of free expression in American higher education.