UEA’s sombrero ban is no joke
Earlier this week, the students’ union at my alma mater, the University of East Anglia, banned and confiscated sombreros on campus. The offending hats were given out at the UEA freshers’ fair by staff from Pedro’s Tex Mex Cantina, a Mexican-themed restaurant in Norwich. The restaurant staff were informed that sombreros were forbidden under union regulations, banning ‘discriminatory or stereotypical imagery’, and union officials confiscated them from students
In this case, the sombreros were deemed as having the potential to cause racial offence. Yes, hats can now be racist. Thankfully, this ridiculous SU dictat has garnered the ridicule and derision that it deserves. But criticism has been specific to UEA; many are ignoring the context that allowed for such a ban to come about. As documented by spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, it is common for UK students’ unions to ban speakers because they might say something offensive. The sombrero story shows that this illiberal logic has spread further.
A university education is supposed to teach you to think and challenge ideas through the free and open exchange of opinions. For this reason, universities and students’ unions should foster an inquisitive culture, which supports the open expression of ideas and challenges dogmatic cultural and intellectual thinking. However, to foster this culture, universities first need to allow students to express themselves freely. Though banning sombreros is not the same as banning an idea, it sends out the same message: conform to our political outlook, or you will face sanctions. If UEA’s SU thinks sombreros are beyond the pale, it doesn’t bode well for students who want the freedom to learn, debate and speak their minds.
Guy Pierce is a writer and researcher based in London.