Winter Is Coming — But First, Let’s Panic Over Costumes!

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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When Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, says “I will take what is mine with fire and blood,” most of us simply take another gulp of beer and keep watching the Game of Thrones on HBO GO. Daenerys’ fictional enemies, of course, have reason to be fearful. But who knew that the list of House Targaryen’s many opponents would include Bergen Community College?

That’s right: Back in January, the north New Jersey community college, in an excess of paranoia worthy of King Joffrey, absolutely flipped out upon seeing that art professor Francis Schmidt had posted a picture of his young daughter on Google+ wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Targaryen’s vow. Even after Schmidt and others assured the college’s pop-culture-deprived administrators that the quote on the T-shirt came from a wildly popular TV show, they continued to insist it posed a danger. Bergen’s head of security, in a truly absurd reach, even suggested that the word “fire” in the quote “could be a kind of proxy for ‘AK-47s.’”

The solution? Bergen placed Schmidt on leave without pay until a psychiatrist attested to his mental fitness. (One soon did so, presumably grateful for the easy money.) Schmidt was reinstated, but with an official warning in his file and threats that he might be fired if he disparaged the college or did anything “unbecoming.” Only after my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), got involved and connected Schmidt with lawyers did Bergen relent — and then only after eight months!

One might think that Bergen Community College has set some kind of record for clothing-inspired obtuseness among college campuses. Unfortunately, that’s not the case — as I predict the nation will soon realize (again) in the wake of Halloween this Friday. It seems that every year, the professionally indignant get, well, indignant again over some students who end up wearing, knowingly or not, politically incorrect Halloween costumes.

The major issue in the Halloween offendedness sweepstakes is typically race. My prediction: at least two non-black students will be involved in publicized incidents in which they dress in ways perceived as offensive to black people. Most obviously, someone could dress like a rapper, use dark makeup on his or her face, and be accused of engaging in blackface. The millennial generation is hardly rife with rabid Al Jolson fans — heck, they may have seen White Chicks — so they may not have any idea why what they did was problematic.

But the racial nexus doesn’t even have to be that blatant. Northwestern University students are under fire for holding a “Jail N’ Bail”-themed literacy fundraiser with no apparent racial content because it “belittled” the problems faced by racial minorities and the poor. Or maybe someone will wear the (undeniably tacky) “Sexy Ebola Containment Suit” costume and be accused of insensitivity towards West African victims of the disease. The opportunities for offense are endless.

The “name and shame” effort for those who transgress has already begun on some campuses. At Cal State-Fullerton, the Alpha Delta Pi sorority recently held a Taco Tuesday rush event, for which some members reportedly wore “sarapes, sombreros and in some cases, gang costumes.” You may remember Taco Tuesday as a plot device in the kid-friendly Lego Movie, which even featured a sombrero-wearing and cheese-bearing Lego minifigure.

But for its event, ADPi was slapped with seven conduct violations, all of which were not just wrong on the merits but also unconstitutional. As punishment, ADPi is to suffer more than year of probation and is required to coordinate a “we are a culture not a costume” campaign for the entire university — approved and guided by the administration, of course. As the cultural menace of The Lego Movie is hardly a spent force, expect some students to get in trouble this Halloween for Mexican-themed costumes or parties as well.

A few universities are trying to head problems off at the pass this year by warning students of the terrible peril of insensitive Halloween costumes. Penn State and the Universities of Minnesota and North Dakota this year sent emails to their students warning them against wearing Halloween costumes that might hurt someone’s feelings. Perhaps we should be grateful they didn’t threaten to arrest people, as Syracuse did in 2010.

While the campaign against controversial costumes is absurd, that’s not what makes it important. Its importance lies in its value as another powerful illustration that on campus, being offended is now a trump card — a license to shut down expression you don’t like. And what starts on Halloween doesn’t stop at graduation. Just ask all the commencement speakers “disinvited” from campuses last year. (Or Bill Maher just this week.) It’s too bad there’s no obvious costume idea for free speech. That one would really put a fright in campuses this Halloween.