I recently wrote about the growing controversy over Halloween costumes on campuses and beyond over allegations of cultural appropriation. Various colleges have cracked down on costumes deemed inappropriate or insulting or culturally appropriating. There is little consideration of the free speech concerns over such regulations or the differing views of cultural appropriations theories. There is little question that many of these costumes are insulting and inappropriate. The question is the role of universities in policing good taste and punishing those students who fail to meet often ambiguous standards. The latest such controversy of students facing discipline can be found at the College of Charleston where members of the softball team cross the line of the Halloween etiquette.
According to WCSC-5, three students dressed up as “Hispanics with mustaches and cowboy hats” and two others as Border Patrol agents. They ended up winning the second prize in a costume contest . . . and a trip to a disciplinary proceeding to training on “diversity and inclusion.”
The group was called “2nd place goes to . . . Team Hispanics and Border Patrol.
The college took action after a photo was posted on social media.
College of Charleston President Steve Osborne issued the following statement:
“Yesterday, some members of the College of Charleston softball team wore Halloween costumes on campus that were racially and culturally insensitive. This poor decision-making by some of our student-athletes causes harm on our campus and in the greater community. This incident does not reflect our university’s core values of diversity, community and respect for the individual. I am severely disappointed in these student-athletes and that something like this has, once again, happened at our university.
The softball team has written an apology to Athletics Director Matt Roberts and me, which is attached so that our entire campus community can read it. I accept their apology, but now comes the hard part: where we put action to words and make meaningful change. In line with that, the softball team will be undergoing diversity and inclusion training beginning next week.
Despite multiple messages from members of the administration and student affairs to the student body cautioning against offensive costumes or party décor, we still find ourselves in a place of hurt today. Clearly, we have failed to properly educate and impart on some of our students the importance of thinking before they act in order to make decisions that do no harm.”
The problem such “education” is that the colleges and universities often leave the standard undefined. For example, students at Michigan State University this week were given warnings that a costume of a giant taco was not offensive but becomes offensive if the student puts on a sombrero.
There is little question that these costumes were deeply offensive. I have no problem with the university calling in such students and expressing their dissatisfaction and disapproval. However, the question remains on our authority to punish or order mandatory training of students for expression in their private lives and associations. If we possess such authority, how far does it extend? Such expressions can have a mix of social and political elements. They can also occur off campus or on social media.
Should colleges and universities police such matters with disciplinary measures.