Offensive Costume Exercising ‘Free Speech’

Higher education has been created in a way that allows students freedom while they are searching for who they want to become. Universities teach independence, perseverance, responsibility, and many more lessons. As becoming adults people want more freedom, but as new laws are being created within universities students feel that a level of freedom is being stripped away from them. A major controversial issue occurring within universities is what level do they need to step in when it comes to dress codes. Should universities be able to set limits on what their students are allowed to wear? At a high school level, the government feels that dress codes are mandatory, as students are minors and impressionable. Specifically, at public schools, public learning institutions require peaceful environments and many people feel that edgy clothing disrupts this environment. Also, the topic of “distraction” is another issue that is brought up when it comes to clothing. Edwin Darden, an attorney, and writer for the Center for Public Education explains, “Even with the First Amendment protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, there are limits in the school setting. And figuring out where the line is drawn is fairly complicated.”

An exercising ‘free speech’ case, relating to clothing, was brought up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the University of Wisconsin-vs.-Nebraska game. The first amendment protects people’s right to express themselves, while also protecting others from taking their expressions too far. In this case, a fan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison arrived at the game in an Obama costume with a noose tied around his neck. Many fans found his expression offensive, as it can be perceived as violent and relating to racism. This fan was peacefully asked to remove the offensive parts of his costume and he complied. But, the debate on this issue is if the fan had not complied would the University have had the right to push more for him to remove parts of his costume. Technically speaking the First Amendment protects this men’s apparel choices and he could have fought to keep all parts of his costume on if he wanted. But, with this protection institutions can make separate laws that in the future will prevent someone from wearing offensive costumes similar to him.

 Trying to find the right balance when it comes to cases like this can be difficult. The goal is to abide by the First Amendment and allow people the freedom of speech and expression, while also taking into consideration the effects that offensive acts of expression can have on others.  Although finding a balance on issues like these is not easy, universities are finding ways to compensate for both sides of this argument. As Edwin Darden explains, “One of the realities of First Amendment Free Speech law is that it is a moving target. As new cases arise the Supreme Court has an opportunity to adjust the line or mark it in a bolder color. The key is striking a balance so that education occurs while students and employees exercise their constitutionally protected speech right.”  

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