Recently, three schools outside of Syracuse, New York banned Halloween costumes referencing the Netflix show Squid Game because of their “potentially violent message”. This isn’t even the first time. Schools have been censoring “violence” in pop culture since pop culture was a thing. Before, it was the Scream mask and Freddy Krueger. Now, it is Squid Game and violent video games. Some people believe that these costumes are inappropriate and that kids should not be exposed to them. But I believe that logic violates students’ freedom of speech as defined in Tinker vs. Des Moines, that it can be used as a slippery slope into banning anything that schools deem inappropriate, and it teaches students all the wrong lessons about the real world.
Firstly, the school is violating the decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines. This was a Supreme Court case where a school censored two students for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The students sued the school, and the Supreme Court decided that schools cannot violate student’s freedom of speech, except in limited circumstances. The precedent they gave was that if a student was not disrupting the learning environment, schools could not take away their freedom of speech. I believe these costumes are not disrupting the learning environment because, well, they’re costumes, that aren’t harming anybody, they’re not offending anybody, and they are not offensive, so banning them is taking away students free speech for no reason. Also, aside from clearly violating the spirit of the decision, it also may violate the decision outright, as the Tinker decision was about political speech, and Squid Game costumes could be considered political speech, as the show is a commentary on capitalism.
In addition to the legal ramifications, censorship, particularly of clothing choices, can be a slippery slope to banning other controversial ideas. As CBS2 said in an article covering the story, by this logic you could ban pirate costumes because they were historically violent outlaws. I think the real question is, what will we learn from this going forward? Will we learn to teach good messages without censorship? Or will we ban more and more costumes each Halloween season? Will we go beyond costumes into regular clothing? This debate echoes dress code battles that are also going on, where female students are being censored, literally. At a Florida high school, female students’ chests and shoulders were edited out of photos. Between banning Squid Game costumes and pixelating students’ bodies, what could be next?
This censorship also teaches students all the wrong lessons. It makes students think, “My principal can not like something and not let anyone wear it, why shouldn’t I apply that same logic?” It’s been repeatedly documented that children learn their behaviors from adults. It’s teaching kids that being a tyrant is an acceptable way to operate in the world that will help you succeed. It is telling them, if you’re in a position of power, your opinion is more important than other people’s freedom of expression.
Now, many parents and teachers say that these costumes represent the violence in the show, and that kids wearing these costumes endorses a “violent message”. The problem with that argument is that the show does not have a violent message. The message is about the failures of modern-day capitalism. And even if people think it does, then what qualifies as a message worth censoring? Censorship assumes students are incapable of watching a TV show with violence and understanding that even though the TV show is good, violence is bad. As described by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), some parents don’t want profanity, some don’t want sex, some don’t want books without a moral lesson. If you try to accommodate everything that everyone doesn’t like, “the curriculum would narrow to including only the least controversial and probably least relevant material. It would hardly address students’ real concerns, satisfy their curiosity, or prepare them for life.” As I iterated before, the violence is not the point. And if you still don’t want your kids seeing the show, just don’t let them watch it. The solution to students acting violently with one another is not to ban any and all mention of a particular TV show. It feels like a Big Brother telling you what you can and can’t wear or talk about. And no matter how young the people are, that is concerning logic. Even Thomas Jefferson, the same person most schools teach about fondly, opposed any “tyranny over the mind of man.”
To sum it up, censorship is the easy answer. What should we do instead? A better way is to teach kids to do the right thing while giving them autonomy and not telling them that the thing they like is bad and wrong. It makes everybody feel better and less stressed if you just teach good lessons. Parents know their kids are getting taught about the world, teachers don’t have to deal with angry kids and angry emails, and students get to do what they like. If there are 3 words you should take away from this article, they would be “teach, don’t censor.”