When officials at the University of Oklahoma cautioned students and faculty about their choice of Halloween costumes this year, it reminded some of a 2015 controversy at Yale University that led an adjunct faculty member to lose her job for suggesting that people not get too worked up over young people’s costume choices.
“Cultural appropriation of identities can be offensive,” the OU Office of University Community announced last month. “Please select your costumes and depictions in a way that does not demean, dehumanize or diminish anyone’s identity or culture.”
Which could easily be taken to mean that OU would officially disapprove and possibly even punish, for example, a mask that caricatures Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, especially since the university operates a bias reporting hotline that allows any aggrieved or offended party to report and launch an investigation into supposed acts of bias.
The OU Office of University Community is relatively new. The position of “Vice President for the University Community” was created in 2015. By 2017, the Office of University Community had a staff (in addition to the vice president) of three. By 2018, the staff had grown to 10.
Responding to the costume warning, OU College Republicans noted that while truly offensive costumes like blackface are not acceptable, the memo from the Office of University Community came close to a prior restraint of the First Amendment right to free speech. OU professor David Deming added that he felt the university had bigger concerns than how teens and young adults amuse themselves one night a year.
The OU controversy is just the latest in a national wave of efforts by college and university administrations to regulate, monitor, and often punish expressions in word and deed by students, faculty, and campus speakers.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has given both OU and Oklahoma State University a warning “yellow light” for their limits on campus free speech. Some 58.6 percent of the 461 colleges and universities surveyed by FIRE fell into the category.
Almost one third made the FIRE “red light” list, which indicates that they imposed limits on free speech that constituted a clear restraint of First Amendment rights. Just 37 schools earned a “green light” rating that indicated that they are generally friendly to free speech.
Fully 30 percent of campuses have bias response teams or other reporting mechanisms similar to OU’s, according to FIRE’s survey.
Both FIRE and Speech First, a similar organization advocating free speech on campuses, have aggressively fought back against campus speech codes, restrictive “free speech zones,” and bias response programs that can lead to investigations and even punishment for speech.