Boo! This Halloween, beware of ghosts, offensive costumes … and college administrators

A glowing jack-o'-lantern with a menacing face carved into it, illuminated from within against a dark backdrop, perfect for Halloween.

As college students prepare for Halloween parties, college administrators send out predictable warnings about the importance of not offending anyone with a Halloween costume. Whitman College, for example, cautions against anything that might “trivialize human suffering or oppression” – like a prisoner costume. The University of Nebraska and the University of Colorado warn their students about “cultural appropriation.” Most of these warnings elevate perceived slights based on the subjective projections of other students that are difficult if not impossible to predict.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with urging students to be sensitive. But sometimes, schools cross the line into actually investigating students for supposedly offensive costumes or party themes. This risk is amplified by the fact that many schools have vague and overly broad “bias” policies that could apply to something like wearing a costume that another person finds offensive. The aforementioned Whitman College, for example, has an online bias reporting system where people can report anything they perceive as a “bias incident” to the administration. Examples of bias incidents listed by the college include “Objectifying a person based on race or gender” or “Mocking a person’s traditional manner of dress” (does “grunge” attire count as “traditional” dress in the Pacific Northwest?) – accusations that could easily be made about any number of Halloween costumes.

So what happens if someone reports you for a costume they find offensive?

If you attend a public university, any attempt to investigate or punish you over a costume could violate your First Amendment rights. And even most private universities make extensive promises of free speech, which such punishments may also violate. Unfortunately, violations of free speech on campus are often compounded by unfair disciplinary processes where you don’t have much opportunity to defend yourself – a double whammy. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to talk to an attorney who understands free speech and due process on campus. The attorneys at Allen Harris serve as advisors to students in disciplinary proceedings across the country, and we have the knowledge and experience to help ensure your rights are protected. If you need a strong advocate on your side, contact us today.