The students’ union at one of Scotland’s most prestigious universities has banned students from dressing as Pocahontas and Caitlyn Jenner in a strict costume policy, provoking debate in the same week it was revealed to be one of the UK’s most “ban-happy” institutions when it comes to free speech.
The Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) at the University of Edinburgh also put the policy into place for after reported cases of blackface saw students darkening their skin - a move the EUSA says “has a racist history and is unacceptable” - during nights out.
The EUSA’s rules add: “Dressing as a stereotype of a race, culture, or group of people is not acceptable, for example, ‘Mexicans’, ‘Native American’, ‘gangster’, ‘Arab’.
“It is also not acceptable to use props to emphasise racial characteristics in order to convey an individual or character. A good costume should be clear enough that you do not need racial or cultural additions to your costume to distinguish who you are dressed as.”
The rules then go on to explain how characters from films or books - who may be individuals but who are based on stereotypes of their culture - is not acceptable, including Pocahontas as this would be “stereotyping Native American culture.”
Outfits depicting slavery, police brutality, Nazis, and “mental patient” costumes are prohibited, as well as “camp” men costumes, Caitlyn Jenner costumes, and outfits which use “cross-dressing for the purpose of humour” as the EUSA says these mock the LGBT community.
Lastly, costumes which “utilise gender-based or sexual violence for the purpose of humour” are not allowed, urging students not to depict men like Chris Brown, Ched Evans, and Jimmy Saville.
Those who are still unsure as to whether or not their costume may be considered inappropriate or offensive are told: “It probably is, so don’t wear it.”
Now, though, first-year Master of Philosophy student, Charlie Peters, 19, has began an online petition calling for the union to “reinstate and defend free speech” after online magazine spiked released its annual Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) on Monday, naming Edinburgh as being among Britain's most restrictive.
Fast-approaching 1,000 signatures, Peters attached an open letter to the petition in which he criticised the union for restricting “the right of students and guests to speak freely.” He adds: “In a free and liberal society such as ours, it is imperative people remain able to express their views, regardless of what others may think of them.
“This is currently not possible at the University of Edinburgh. By defining university as a ‘Safe Space’, you shelter students from dissenting views, betraying the most basic ideals of education.”
Previous bans made by the EUSA have included social media site UniLad, Page 3, and Robin Thicke’s hit, Blurred Lines from being played on campus. Peters adds in the letter: “By banning the newspaper The Sun and even a song, you are mocking those who bravely fight against the oppression of their speech, their press, and their expression.”
The coordinator of FSUR, Tom Slater, described how the EUSA “in particular, has outdone itself,” adding: “Our research shows that in Scotland - as it is across the country - campus censorship is hitting epidemic proportions,” reported The Scotsman.
In an email to the Independent, EUSA president, Jonny Ross Tatam, insisted the student’s union “absolutely wants students to debate challenging and contrasting ideas, adding: “And that is exactly what happens in many of our societies across campus.”
However, he continued: “We also believe nobody should have to face racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic abuse in our venues. Similarly, our position on fancy dress costumes has been developed in response to student feedback.
“We think it’s important to ensure none of our members are prevented from enjoying a great night in our venues, so we want people to consider the impact their costume might have on others.”
Overall, he said the EUSA is committed to ensuring students feel able to participate in debate and discussion, concluding: “We believe this is vital if everyone is to have the chance to have their views heard, which is fundamentally what we believe free speech is all about.”
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