College Student in my class with MAGA hat
February 23, 2017 7:30 PM   Subscribe

College professor here, at a majority-minority state school. Recently one of my students came to class with a Make America Great Again red baseball cap. It was during an exam so I only saw it and him briefly and had no practical way to react or comment (even if I had wanted to).

One the one hand: he's probably outnumbered 20 to 1 politically, so good luck to him, academia is in favor of free expression, the marketplace of ideas, willing to let it all hang out, etc.

On the other hand: feels like hate speech. If a student was wearing a "death to $raceX" hat I would feel compelled to take action and possibly evict her/him.

Personally, I'm offended, but that's not the metric I should use to decide.

No students have complained (yet) but he was sitting in the last row so nobody saw him, and it was the first time.

College teachers: advice?
posted by soylent00FF00 to Education (46 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Do you make a habit of commenting on a student's choices of headgear, shoes or other items of clothing? Wearing that hat is not remotely "hate speech."
posted by Ideefixe at 7:32 PM on February 23, 2017 [71 favorites]

I am not a college teacher, but I am a teacher. He is within his rights to wear the ball cap of his choice, endorsing the current president of the United States. You, as faculty, may not infringe on his political, or personal choices, unless they violate Title X.
posted by Oyéah at 7:33 PM on February 23, 2017 [31 favorites]

It is not in any way hate speech. You're making an enormous leap and you should keep your feelings about his clothing and his presumed voting record to yourself.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:38 PM on February 23, 2017 [19 favorites]

No, it's not hate speech, but it is a synecdoche for hate speech.

I'd probably talk to him privately and tell him not to wear it to your class.
posted by Automocar at 7:41 PM on February 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

it's certainly not hate speech but he's doing it from a place of privilege and to be an asshole.
posted by noloveforned at 7:42 PM on February 23, 2017 [19 favorites]

If this actually distracted and disturbed people in an exam, that might be a reasonable basis for some intervention. But it didn't, and unless you hear concrete complaints about it I don't think you should do anything.

As others have said, this is not "hate speech," and the inference that a person with similar attitudes might wear a "Death to $X" hat is not just dubious but irrelevant -- if he wore such a hat, you could ask him not to and / or report it up the university, but he didn't wear that hat.

I think it's really bad and scary that Trump got elected, but you will not get anywhere trying to ban pro-Trump sentiment. Protect your students from actual hate speech; no classroom rule can protect your students from the fact that a bunch of people are pro-Trump.
posted by grobstein at 7:44 PM on February 23, 2017 [15 favorites]

No reason to remove someone on this basis. You're unlikely to remove a student for wearing a BLM shirt (by which many on the right have now absurdly complained is a racist movement), and I think a Maga hat falls on that spectrum. The student identifies himself with what they wear. Let him own it and deal with whatever reactions from his fellow students it may bring, but you absolutely should not ask him to remove it unless you have a blanket policy against headwear or political messaging of all stripes (which itself gets you into first amendment problems)

Also, I cannot think of any better way to bring lots of unwanted attention and harassment to your career and your school if you were to force this student to remove the hat and this thing becomes the latest "evidence" of a liberal campus conspiracy against conservatives.
posted by Karaage at 7:45 PM on February 23, 2017 [33 favorites]

I'm a college student, and I'd prefer that you try not to prevent them from wearing a MAGA hat for one reason - it tells me exactly where their politics lie, and then I can react to them accordingly.
posted by spinifex23 at 7:46 PM on February 23, 2017 [44 favorites]

If it's an overwhelmingly left-leaning college campus, I'm almost 90% positive he's wearing it so he can provoke people and then go complain about how oppressed he is by intolerant liberals because of his "differing opinion". Ignore it and let your students confront and argue with him.
posted by windbox at 7:47 PM on February 23, 2017 [102 favorites]

Hi, I'm a college professor, and I have had students of every political leaning. I am vehemently anti-this administration, I marched in WDC in my pink cap and I am a very active activist, just so you know where I am coming from. On my very lefty campus I often have, in each classroom, one or two conservative kids.
In a tense political climate, where I have sympathy for anxiety about Trump in all ways... there is no way that a professor can in any way interpret a "make american great again" hat to be anything akin to a"death to $raceX" hat.
It's not hate speech and it's not a symbol of hate speech.
I just talked at length to a person of color who explained in very interesting ways why he supports Trump. As are many people, this guy was still focused on an idea that government is business and felt Trump stands for that ideal. I disagree with him, but it's not accurate for us to imagine that we know everyone's reasons for supporting Trump and it's simply not true that all meanings of the cap all the same for everyone. You can hate Trump and his cabinet 100% because they are telling us what they believe and acting on it and we should believe them. But if we forbid someone from wearing this cap, or if we decide the cap simply means one thing for everyone , then we are actually engaging in the same kind of reductive and defensive logic that Trump is using.
"Make America Great Again" has been used for white supremacist beliefs. But It's not a swastika.
We don't have the right to censor the expression of political beliefs we disagree with. And we shouldn't.
posted by flourpot at 7:54 PM on February 23, 2017 [32 favorites]

No what this is a college campus he is absolutely allowed to wear that hat. What? I am a professor and I identify as extremely liberal. You really need to brush up on free speech in the classroom and I say this not to be sarcastic, but because it's incredibly important to allow the free exchange of ideas, especially political ones, in college.
posted by sockermom at 7:56 PM on February 23, 2017 [23 favorites]

You also want to be careful at state schools - censorship becomes an issue. Not fake censorship, actual censorship.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 7:57 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks all - I'm most interested in answers from other college professors who are aware of the complex & contradictory free-speech/hate-speech issues & as well as the specific and convoluted Title IX reporting requirements

Given the continuum - on one end, from a student was making (or wearing) overt hate speech which is causing the other end: a statement (written or spoken) which was not overt and not disruptive, but might be perceived as hate speech by some, or might trigger Title IX reporting requirement, what's the metric for taking action?

I know my personal feelings are not the right metric.

If there's disruption? If students complain?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 7:57 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

It doesn't matter if other students complain. He has a right to wear a hat supporting the president. He has a right to free speech.
In fact protecting his right to free speech is MORE important if others complain about it.
But there is no way the other students are going to complain about this kid's cap. It won't happen. well, maybe one or two ... but no, it isn't going to be a thing.
Expressing actual hate speech is entirely different. If he threatens anyone, if he makes violent remarks, if he mentions antipathy towards any minority or wears clothing expressing violence or intolerance of a group of people, then report him to your chair and the dean of students.
posted by flourpot at 8:02 PM on February 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

No action on what he wears;
Act on distruptive behavior-
Which might also include students with opposing views--
posted by calgirl at 8:02 PM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks all - I'm most interested in answers from other college professors who are aware of the complex & contradictory free-speech/hate-speech issues & as well as the specific and convoluted Title IX reporting requirements

College professor here. The answer to "does this require Title IX reporting" is almost always "ask your institution's Title IX Coordinator". Every institution has its own slightly different set of rules, depending on how they interpreted the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter.

As a general rule, though, note that Title IX only applies to gender-based discrimination; an explicit "Death to $raceX" t-shirt, while possibly actionable under your institution's codes of student conduct, would not require reporting under Title IX. I'm of the opinion that Trump's attitudes towards women are abhorrent, but it requires a few questionable logical leaps to call wearing a MAGA hat sexual harassment. By that logic, you couldn't put a picture of Trump on a poster announcing a campus event because it would create a hostile environment.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:26 PM on February 23, 2017 [17 favorites]

You know, being a public college, you may not be constitutionally entitled to restrict his dress on the basis of the message. As a professor in a state institution, interfering with his expression (especially, as in this case, when it is political expression, which is the most protected speech on the continuum) is probably neither allowed by your school nor allowable under the First Amendment.

In your shoes, I would suggest checking in with your college's general counsel.

Consider this in a content neutral context. Better yet, reverse the scenario and see how you come out. What if you were teaching in a predominantly white male conservative school and a female student created moral outrage by wearing a pink hat or a t- shirt that said "hands off my pussy". You would probably be inclined to protect her right to expression of an unpopular political position from suppression by a "tyranny of the majority." Remember that it's not very effective political expression if it doesn't raise some emotions.

I hate Trump and I believe that anyone who voted for him is a racist, but speaking solely from the perspective of constitutionally protected expression, I don't think you can tell the kid to dump the hat.

Again, though, your school has legal counsel to prevent mishaps. Check with them.
posted by janey47 at 8:30 PM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

No you cannot ask him to remove the hat or leave. Come on. Trump is the President of the USA, lots of people on your campus voted for him. It's not hate speech for someone else to support a politician you personally don't like. You have totally lost perspective here. I would not bring this up with your school counsel as it will tag you as someone they are not going to take seriously in the future.
posted by fshgrl at 8:41 PM on February 23, 2017 [25 favorites]

> No what this is a college campus he is absolutely allowed to wear that hat.

I had profs in college who did not allow hats in class. Religious headgear? Fine. Otherwise, no, no hats worn by anyone, no matter the hat type. Content-neutral enforcement.
posted by rtha at 8:42 PM on February 23, 2017 [10 favorites]

Oh yes, and one more thing. You may not discuss your displeasure with other students, or try to get them to act out on your outrage. Having a teacher create a clique against a student based on personal political convictions, is a form of harassment. This includes eye to hat, eye to other students, raised eyebrows, anything of the sort. Your students are dependent on your tolerance of them, in order that they may express their individuality in a peaceful and accepting classroom culture.
posted by Oyéah at 8:50 PM on February 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

I teach high school, not college, and I have always been under-supportive of my school's "no hats" policy (enforced it, because that's my job, but I think the kids have always known I think it's a silly policy). But I have to say, it felt *great* to immediately snap out, "No hats in school!" when one of my kids came in with one of those--didn't have to get into why *that* hat, just never hats.

And yeah, high school isn't college, but especially during an exam, hats are traditionally prohibited for reasons of cheating prevention.
posted by lysimache at 8:54 PM on February 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

Last thread-sit, I promise: Thanks all - more or less reinforcing my original feelings which I could sum up as "Free speech that makes me sick but isn't causing (overt) harm?" Suck it up silently but don't take action. That's why I get the big bucks! (*joke*)

Re: cheating with hats. The hat cheater? How does it work? RF? IR? Microfiche? Tell! (This probably deserves it's own Ask thread)
posted by soylent00FF00 at 8:59 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Professor here. Can't stand Trump. This is not hate speech. You may not agree with this kid but, if anything, you should protect an environment of open expression and discussion lest the swinging fist of the right comes swinging even harder at higher ed thanks to censorship of ultimately pretty stupid things like ugly red political ballcaps made in China.

How you cheat with a ball cap: you write the answers on the bottom of the bill. Or inside the hat, if you think you can get away with taking it off and peeking inside.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 9:07 PM on February 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

I am a college professor. Would it be hate speech for a student in your class to say to another student "I support President Trump"? Perhaps you need to think about a MAGA hat in that context. Nobody can control if other people are offended by your words. It is literally impossible to control the emotional responses of other people. So I think that is indeed the wrong rubric to use to decide if this is a problem. If a student complained, then it would be best to just talk with the complainer about the importance of free expression. What if the hat-wearing student approached you and complained about being offended by a leftist tee-shirt worn by another student? Would you take action against the tee-shirt wearer? Of course not.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:12 PM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

Since you're looking for data points from active faculty:

I am a professor at a large and very liberal university (private, but in this case that probably gives me more leeway than you might have). I would *never* tell a student to remove a passive political slogan of almost any variety (and certainly not the symbol of the sitting President). If I ever did feel the need, I would talk to general council well in advance.

Cheating with hats: small pieces of paper tucked into the headband or write answers/formulas/definitions on the brim.
posted by NormieP at 9:15 PM on February 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Free speech that makes me sick but isn't causing (overt) harm?" Suck it up silently but don't take action. That's why I get the big bucks!

A less victimized way to approach it might be to look at it as viewpoint discrimination.
posted by rhizome at 9:28 PM on February 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it

Upholding the right to free speech is what I would expect of anyone who taught at college level. In fact, I'd be really wary of a teacher who conflated a pro-Trump hat with hate speech.
posted by Kwadeng at 9:29 PM on February 23, 2017 [14 favorites]

I think it's hate speech. Would you allow someone to wear a Klan robe? This is the same.
posted by Violet Hour at 9:57 PM on February 23, 2017

It is absolutely not the same as a Klan robe.
posted by rhizome at 10:02 PM on February 23, 2017 [38 favorites]

Another college professor here who would never ever even mention the hat to the student, let alone report him to the dean.
posted by escabeche at 10:08 PM on February 23, 2017

No. You're within your rights not to like someone with a MAGA hat, but as long as you are in a context where you are in a position of power (teacher-student or boss/employee) you may not treat it as hate speech. In your professional role, it is not hate speech. If other students choose to react to it, that is their great good right but they are able to address it as people and peers. You are not as long as you are his teacher.
posted by frumiousb at 10:15 PM on February 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Re: cheating with hats. The hat cheater? How does it work? RF? IR? Microfiche? Tell! (This probably deserves it's own Ask thread)

A friend of mine once cheated bigtime on the finals by using white post-its to write formulas with a light grey pen and stuck them inside. He sat in, put a water bottle (without label) on the table and removed his hat par rules by putting it on top of the bottle (that room had small tables).
Every time he needed something, he just put his hat on the table with the insides up, took a sip and put it back on.

As for the question, this without knowing the student, I would add the possibility he might be trying to get a rise from someone in a place of authority in campus. Being "oppressed" is a good way to get a career going, from a sob story on reddit about being told off on a liberal campus before a very important exam just for wearing a hat to a news post on breitbart to telling his story on fox to being a guest columnist who knows where.
Fight the assholes, but don't make more fake-ass martyrs out of them.
posted by lmfsilva at 10:47 PM on February 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

If anything, the more people ignore it, the better. He's a troll trying to provoke a reaction, hopefully an overreaction, so that he can complain about his rights being violated or whatever. Ignoring him and his hat is the surest way to disappoint him.
posted by katyggls at 11:14 PM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

You're at a state school, so really inadvisable. Meeting the imminent danger standard for a MAGA hat seems pretty unlikely. Here's more about public university speech codes.
posted by listen, lady at 11:21 PM on February 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

To clarify my earlier point: there are differing standards for different grade levels (an elementary school may impose greater restrictions than a high school) and absent harm to a specified protected class, the "freedom of expression" we talk about under the First Amendment to the federal constitution is freedom from inappropriate government intrusion on the right to express our views. Accordingly, a state school (which is a government actor) has an obligation to refrain from intrusion that is not true of a private college or university.

Also, as I imply above, speech is protected on a continuum. Commercial speech is less protected. Pornography is unprotected. Child pornography is in a special class that is not only unprotected but is criminalized and subject to prior restraint. Libel and slander laws limit the protections of certain kinds of speech. So "free speech" is not a blanket protection that allows anyone to say anything without any limits. You can tell your own child to be quiet while you're concentrating on driving your car without infringing on his right to freedom of expression because in that case you are not acting on behalf of a government entity.

However, the whole point of the First Amendment's freedom of expression provisions is to prevent the suppression of political discourse by the government. That's why it matters that you're at a state school. There, you are acting in behalf of the state/government. And the fact that it's an institution of higher learning, so your students are adults, gives you a higher obligation than if it were a public kindergarten.

Apologies for all to whom this is obvious. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that the general public has no goddamn idea why cancelling Yiannapoulos's book deal is not an unlawful intrusion on his right to freedom of expression or why twitter can ban Richard Spencer.
posted by janey47 at 12:37 AM on February 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

Damn, one more point I think is important: having been part of a private university's office of the general counsel while in law school, I would be extremely surprised if your GC thought badly of you for consulting them on questions such as these. The suggestion that you would not be taken seriously in the future if you ask for guidance now is startling to me and is absolutely not my experience. Remember the adage that there are no dumb questions except the one you don't ask? Ask. That's why they are there: to provide guidance.
posted by janey47 at 12:44 AM on February 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Over 30 years ago, I remember a prof telling a grad student to remove a hat - a hat with no slogan - because of the prof's expressed belief that hats shouldn't be worn indoors and that it was his classroom and he would do anything he wanted in it. It really stuck with me - the arrogance of faculty member and the imposition of his cultural norms on others that he should have been educating. Unless you would like to be unfondly remembered years from now by most students in your class as a jackass, I would suggest that you keep your bias and culturally constructed opinion to yourself and teach your subject matter without comment about anyone's appearance or attire.
posted by mfoight at 6:25 AM on February 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

Whereas I would think that it's part of educating your students for the "real world" (whatever that is) that hats are not worn indoors. It's not like you'd be asking him to cover up the slogan, just to show a baseline level of politeness.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:52 AM on February 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sorry but "men don't wear hats indoors" is one of those traditional values that those abhorrent racist twits love so much. Use it here, where it is distinctly appropriate.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:03 AM on February 24, 2017

This is a non-issue. People can wear what they want and say what they want. Don't ask them, and in turn everyone wearing hats, to remove it either. I still hate those professors that did that. I would rather some asshole wear a trump hat then have some teacher dictate what I can wear. I have female friends that cheated by wearing black tights and writing the information on their legs. When they needed an answer they'd readjust their skirt. There's a myriad of cheating opportunities. Leave the hat alone and be a professional.
posted by Marinara at 7:43 AM on February 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Go old school and enforce a "no hats indoors" policy. Include beanies, just to be fair. Exclude, of course, legitimate religious headgear.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:52 AM on February 24, 2017

If your opinion of him changes based on the color of his hat (or his pants, etc.) then you're not in charge because he's controlling you. Just say, "Take off your hat inside, dude."
posted by emelenjr at 10:18 AM on February 24, 2017

In the words of my favorite redditor: "Tolerance is for people that you don't agree with." To paraphrase the words of that great great conservative George Will after Larry Summer's ouster as President of Harvard University: "His mistake was assuming that he was speaking at a place that tolerates the free and open exchange of ideas. Instead, he was on a college campus."

I know that I'm probably the only voice of dissent here, but I'm hoping you can engage with my argument seriously. Was your student disrupting other student's learning experience? From what you wrote, it seems that he was simply disrupting your psyche. (And if you want to respond and clarify your reaction, I will listen with an open mind...but to put this differently: are we talking about someone putting on a hat, then threatening and cajoling others with a very clear indication of imminent violence...or was he just wearing a hat that represents a political figure you detest?)
posted by Mr. Fig at 10:22 AM on February 24, 2017

The free expression aspects have been covered upthread, but there's something else I'd like to chime in on here. The notion of conservative-as-oppressed-minority has been a trope since I was in college twenty years ago. David Horowitz was pushing it then, and it has been accepted as gospel by the conservative movement in the intervening years. In all likelihood, this kid is not a true-believer fascist; like many Trumpies, he's probably just a troll. But if you, in your authority as a professor, give him crap because of his hat, you'll just confirm all the stories he's heard. And if one of those stories (conservative "oppression") is true, there's a good chance he'll infer that other right-wing stories are true. "If they're telling the truth about professors hating conservatives, then maybe they're telling the truth about immigrants committing crimes and stuff, too." He might actually start believing some of this garbage, instead of just spouting it to get a reaction. It's kind of a trap for you. Don't fall into it.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:15 AM on February 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

Just leave him be: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." (Evelyn Beatrice Hall)

If your bro there wants to label himself, that just makes it easier for everyone else to pigeon-hole him. I work on a college campus, and the guys who wear the most hats/shirts/whatever like this also seem to travel in packs of their peers. When I see this happen, I am reminded of the scene in "Say Anything" that goes:
Lloyd Dobler: I got a question. If you guys know so much about women, how come you're here at, like, the Gas 'n' Sip on a Saturday night completely alone drinking beers with no women anywhere?

Joe: By choice, man.
Just leave him be.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:56 PM on February 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

no, you certainly can't tell him his dumb acronym hat is hate speech. Even if it was, you would have to base your objection on a legal definition or written college policy, not on how it felt to you.

but there is an interesting question there about the transitive property of hate speech: certain things Trump has said are unambiguous hate speech; saying "I agree with Trump in all things" is unambiguously not hate speech. My opinion, and also the consensus.

but why? it's a little tricky.

I know that I'm probably the only voice of dissent here

yeah, just you and everybody else here.

This is probably how the dumb kid feels, like a proud and lonely dissident, even though nearly half the country agreed with him and his side won and has all the power. If he wore his hat to class to provoke, and doesn't get a reaction, sooner or later he'll escalate to actual offenses that you can discipline him for. & if he doesn't, very likely he's ignorant but educable and college will be good for him. Enforce respect in all classroom discussions, make an airtight and unbiased policy about what that means and put it on the syllabus, and ignore his stupid hat.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:06 PM on February 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

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