This past weekend was Halloween. This is a great time of year, especially in a college town such as State College Pennsylvania. Students get a chance to let loose during the middle of the stressful semester. This includes partying and dressing up in their costumes of choice. Many would think this is a great chance for students to engage in freedom of expression. Unfortunately, according to the student government of Penn State (UPUA), as well as several aligned student groups, such as the College Democrats, The Penn State Student Black Caucus, as well as others, this is certainly not so.
This past Thursday, the UPUA sent out a joint statement via twitter with the before mentioned student groups warning about potentially problematic Halloween costumes which may amount to “cultural appropriation”. For those amongst us who are not culturally “woke”, cultural appropriation in the context of an outfit or costume would be someone dressing in a particular way to highlight a particular stereotype of a culture or to mock a particular culture altogether. A specific example of this would be a student of European heritage wearing a sombrero. Another may be an Hispanic student dressing up as a leprechaun. Essentially, it’s the making fun of a particular culture of which the individual in the costume doesn’t belong. My motivation for this essay was not the issue of cultural appropriation itself, or the weird smell of social segregation that accompanies it, but rather one specific word used in the statement: liberty. According to the UPUA and others, not only should students refrain from this form of expression, but they actually don’t have such a liberty to begin with. Not only do we specifically have this right to offend, but it is my opinion that the protection of this right to unpopular speech is critical for the survival of our democratic republic.
Perhaps the greatest part of this nation is our freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the First Amendment of the constitution. Without this right to speak freely and critically, the argument could be made that we would enjoy no others. The oppressed would not be made free and wrong would not be made right. However, the true genius of this right is that the state doesn’t pick winner and losers. By this I mean all speech, regardless as to its popularity or how it makes you feel, is protected speech. This includes everything from the corner preacher to Halloween costumes. You have the liberty, frankly, to be an absolute ass. To suggest otherwise is to expose oneself as being painfully ignorant of the long and clear legal jurisprudential history of courts defending exactly such expression.
This Trojan-horse attempt to limit speech is simply the latest in a broader push to eliminate what is commonly referred to as “hate speech”. I place this term in quotations because it doesn’t actually exist in any legal context. I like to refer to this concept as a unicorn, legally speaking that is. Time and time again, most recently in a 2017 case, the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that there is no “hate speech” exception within the First Amendment. This long jurisprudence dating as far back as the 1920’s includes protection for such horrific speech as cross burning and the infamous bigoted and hateful signs displayed at the deaths of soldiers by parishioners of the Westboro Baptist church of Topeka, Kansas. While some speech has been prohibited, such as direct calls to violence against clear targets, the speech at issue here of a costume clearly doesn’t rise to the level of problematic speech justifying its censorship. Therefore, to claim that a college student doesn’t have the liberty or the right to wear an offensive costume on the last day of October is rather ridiculous and exposes the advocates level of ignorance as to their own rights as citizens. While this aloofness may be annoying, there is actually a real danger in this drive towards censorship.
When the restriction of speech becomes accepted in society, the power to decide what can and can not be said flows quickly from the hands of activists advocating for cultural sensitivity to the government itself restricting the expression of its opposition. This naturally leads to oppression of the population. A single crack in the hull of our right to free speech, even unpopular speech, can quickly spell doom for our status as a free people. While history is replete with examples of this collapse from Nazi Germany to multiple nations south of our border, such as Cuba and Venezuela, we are currently watching those in Hong Kong dodging bullets and clubs for their right to speak out.
The student government, as well as the other clubs which signed on to this statement regarding costumes, is dangerous wrong. We have the right and liberty to offend and anger, and it is important that we do. To claim otherwise begins us down a dangerous road to oppression. Going forward, perhaps the student body would be wise to turn elsewhere for a current list of their liberties rather than their elected representatives.