By Dave Oedel, March 22, 2015, Macon, Georgia:
Middle Georgia made national headlines Wednesday, March 18, 2015 after sorority and fraternity leaders at the University of Georgia chose to ban or discourage the wearing of hoop skirts at events this spring during Kappa Alpha’s Old South Week and Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Magnolia Ball. The issue has immediately been seen as another moment of academic censorship, and another data point in the rise of overbearing political correctness.
In this particular case, both of those characterizations seem dubious. Here’s why.
The Role of the University is Different from the Roles of Students
As the oldest state-sponsored university in the nation dating from 1785, the University of Georgia is a state actor under the law. Given modern precedent beginning with the 1925 U.S. Supreme Court case of Gitlow v. New York, UGA is obliged to respect the first amendment rights of expression that its students might elect to exercise.
Had UGA itself mandated no hoop skirts, it could have been subject to some form of legal scrutiny, especially to the extent that such a choice of clothing is understood as a form of political, religious or artistic expression, or deeply-personal statement of identity. For example, if a transvestite male student or teacher were banned from attending a class in hoop-skirted drag, the student or teacher might have a legal right to object to the prohibition. Similar defenses would likely support a Muslim woman wearing a burqa to class.
The UGA situation is legally different because the decision was apparently made by the Greek student leaders of their own free will, even if in consultation with university officials. Sororities and fraternities aren’t state actors, nor are students.
Greek Student Leaders Hold Some Key Constitutional Rights
Ironically, despite a chorus of cries that some constitutional violation must have occurred, the first amendment would protect the Greek student leaders’ and their Greek organizations’ rights to choose, however unpopularly, to exercise their own influence in banning or discouraging a particular form of clothing expression at their events.
If those students and their organizations see their fellow students’ clothing choices as charged with racial meanings, and then speak against such expression, that is their constitutional right with which state actors should not interfere.
Under our system, more speech, not less, is the appropriate remedy. Students who disagree with the views of the Greek student leaders at UGA remain constitutionally free to object in various ways, unfettered by the university. For instance, they are free to boycott or picket Old South Week and the Magnolia Ball. They can counter-speak the ban in other media of expression. They can celebrate hoop-skirt history at events at which hoop skirts are invited to be worn.
What Were These Greek Student Leaders Thinking?
From the looks of things, the Greek student leaders at UGA were probably trying to find a way to mitigate the fallout from the controversy at the University of Oklahoma, where students of the SAE fraternity there chanted a racist, threatening ditty en route to a formal party. A chapter of the same fraternity sponsors Georgia’s Magnolia Ball, coming up shortly, at which hoop skirts are usually worn. By recommending against hoop skirts, Georgia’s Greek leaders seemed to be signaling their distaste for the Oklahoma SAE chapter’s conduct.
One might imagine more creative, less tradition-costly ways of making that point without jettisoning a beautiful tradition of dress that African-American women and antebellum northern abolitionists like Mary Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, shared.
Mrs. Lincoln’s hoop skirt dress designer was Elizabeth Keckley, a renowned African-American fashion designer. Keckley wore fabulous hoop skirts herself, and designed them with great artistry. Other African Americans enjoyed the style as well, both before and after the Civil War.
It was the UGA students’ right this week to choose inelegant ways to make their apparently-intended point about the Oklahoma SAE students’ conduct. It was also the UGA students’ choice to be uninformed about fashion history.
But all the UGA students’ rights of expression, including those of the Greek student leaders, should be defended by true believers in constitutional values.
The Subtler Question of Political Correctness as a Motivation
As for the question of political correctness, that’s a more nuanced issue, not susceptible to formal legal analysis.
Certainly there has been a kind of hair-trigger offended-ness in the racial climate of Middle Georgia and the nation in recent times, especially after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. That goes for both “sides” of such matters.
But the context this week seemed more complex. On the Megyn Kelly Show on FOX television a few days before the Georgia student leaders decided to discourage wearing hoop skirts at Greek events, University of Oklahoma Black Student Association President Isaac Hill reached out with forgiveness for the two expelled students there. “Let’s not let their hate spark hate with us. Let’s just let their hate spark love with us, and let them learn, and let’s teach them how to be good American citizens,” Hill said.
While Hill was reaching out to the most offensive white students in Oklahoma, the Greek move to discourage hoop skirts at UGA seemed in context to be a reciprocal reaching back across the racial divide, more oblique and head-scratching than Hill’s nice gesture, but still apparently intended to be conciliatory.
Might there have been a more straightforward way to have made such a gesture without simultaneously surrendering the ability to respect a classic tradition of dress? Of course. But the UGA students’ instincts were not wholly coming from rigidity, thoughtlessness and fear — unprincipled instincts that help give political correctness its deservedly bad name. Rather, the UGA students seemed to have in part been expressing a gracious openness to conversation, to considering others’ views and feelings.
That doesn’t seem so bad, really, while incidentally being faithful to well-mannered southern traditions of politeness and elegance among blacks and whites alike. Ironically, wearing hoop skirts is part of that very tradition.
Yes, these Greek student leaders at UGA blundered. They were also well-intentioned in their blundering ways. We shouldn’t pillory them, but instead help them in the future to find more refined paths to making gestures of racial rapprochement without disowning our collective history, and continuing delight, in a uniquely beautiful form of historical dress.