Fall Tradition Says We Should Have a Halloween Free-Speech Controversy — Let’s Not
Sometime in the next few weeks someone is going to do something incredibly stupid. But it's not about politics, it's about Halloween. Free speech advocates fear the vacation because we know we have to grapple with a different viral moment every year when someone's bad attempt at wearing a humorous costume rightly offends not just a few people in attendance but the whole of Twitter.
In a nation of 350 million people, even if COVID-19 parties are less common, someone will think dressing up as George Floyd would be a great idea. It's going to be a terrible idea, but it's just as predictable as the annual debate about whether sweet corn is good. (It is.) And the predictable answer will be to condemn free speech for this having happened.
My humble suggestion: let's not do any of this this year.
First, for the person who thinks this would be a great costume idea, stop. It is not. Yes, the first amendment protects a number of speeches that people may find offensive. "Hate speech" is not a thing in the Constitution. Language can be both terrible and legal. However, the fact that the government can't stop you from expressing an idea doesn't mean that you should express it. Challenge the status quo? Are you speaking for what you believe in? YES. Disrespect can even play an important role in how we communicate challenging ideas and uncover the truth. But trying to be a jerk fool to own the libraries? Just do not.
But this request will fall on deaf ears. I know that and so do you. How should the rest of us react?
For campus administrators, Halloween almost always results in being asked to play costume cops and telling students how to dress so as not to offend others. It's okay to encourage students to respect one another. But too often, official measures go beyond this and threaten students with disciplinary action for costumes that could offend others.
Fostering diversity on campus is critical to both student education and further intellectual advancement. Such is freedom of speech. The two reinforce each other. Freedom of speech makes our diversity meaningful. These statistics turn into conversations that develop understanding. Free speech is necessary, but necessarily chaotic. If you work to avoid controversy, you will likely only create more controversy and in no way contain the crime. If you want students to act like adults, treat them like adults. Invite the dialogue these situations create. You are being asked to censor. What if you go the harder route and don't?
For the media - I know the viral image of the likely illegally drunk 18 year old is going viral. The clicks are available. But is a student's predictably poor costume choice - so predictable that I can write this piece in advance - really new? Will this inform readers or play on our existing departments? Does this speak for the racial justice issues our country is facing or does it just remind us that teenagers sometimes make very bad decisions? Major stories sometimes can't avoid doing all of this, and the press ultimately calls out what the news is and what isn't. But maybe you don't just do it as usual.
And for the rest of us - if the kid makes the bad choice, the administrators are too aggressive, someone on the media and then social media turns baffled by the all-too-predictable (and avoidable) spectacle - the choice is still yours . Let's not.
It's best not to draw inferences about the state of the nation (or the state of anything else) from a photo of an 18 year old who made a terrible decision about a Halloween costume. And it's definitely a bad idea to draw conclusions about whether the first amendment to protect your freedom of speech, worship, and assembly is the monster on this Halloween story.
They know that civil liberties are the solution to our rude times, not their cause. Sure, such viral moments - when people make deplorable use of civil liberties - will receive undue attention. But when asked to gauge the value of free speech by its use by this one 18 year old child? Let's not.
Freedom of speech is based on solid legal ground. For the past four decades, the Supreme Court has provided better protection for freedom of expression than ever before in our history. However, legal rights are only as secure as the cultural basis in which they are anchored. Halloween is one of our annual tests - when we are asked if we can agree that the first change goes too far and "bad language" shouldn't be protected. Not this year.
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