T-Shirts as Opportunities for Education

Posted on 2/26/2014 9:43:20 AM

As March approaches, so do t-shirt sales that reflect themes related to St. Patrick’s Day.  Some shirts are designed to reflect one of the themes promoted by the Center for Student Life’s t-shirt contest, while others promote values and behaviors that run counter to IUP’s mission and values. 

Each spring, the Center for Student Life (CSL) receives inquiries questioning the rationale for granting permits for sales of t-shirts with messages involving alcohol, sexual innuendo, and/or misogynistic messages. Some shirts are sold without obtaining a permit, while others must legally be permitted for sale despite negative, offensive content. Some pictures and phrases have multiple interpretations (for example, does an unlabeled frosty mug contain alcohol or root beer?) and therefore are eligible for a permit. In a free society, on a public campus, “offensive” does not equal “illegal” or “unprotected.”

The following information is intended to provide clarity regarding the university’s role (as implemented by the CSL) in regulating the use of outdoor campus space and to also encourage all members of the IUP and Indiana communities to engage the sellers and wearers of problematic t-shirts in reflective dialog:

  • At a public institution, students retain first amendment rights and freedom of expression. IUP is able to legally regulate the sale of t-shirts that display IUP’s trademark, but other t-shirt sales are more challenging to legally restrict.
  • The CSL/IUP does not provide permits for the sale of t-shirts that contain IUP’s logo and contain messages that clearly involve alcohol, violence, and/ or discrimination against under-represented groups. (Note: “IUPatty’s” is not an IUP trademark).
  • Individuals and organizations sometimes sell t-shirts without going through the permit process or after being denied a permit. Any individual or group that has obtained a permit should be able to produce it upon inquiry. Anyone who wishes to request that a permit be shown by a sales person has the right to make that request. University police will respond if renegade sales are occurring, as staffing allows.
  • Identifying and eliminating sales of “renegade” t-shirts takes a village. The CSL does not have the human resources to patrol campus space day and night.
  • The CSL/IUP does not have jurisdiction to regulate sales on property not owned by IUP (for example, outside businesses, on the Internet, in private homes, etc.)
  • Anyone can choose to engage the sellers of shirts that have permits, but are offensive, in a dialog about why they are selling a shirt with a negative, offensive message; how they believe the shirt will increase the value and perception of their eventual IUP diploma; and why the person or group embraces the t-shirt message (the same conversation can be initiated with students who wear the t-shirts).
  • Keep in mind that the legal restrictions to censorship at a public university also protect the messages that reflect your values but that someone else finds offensive. And, prohibiting content doesn’t typically promote growth or education or lead to sustained change (it encourages a focus on the prohibition, not the reason behind the prohibition), but respectful, open dialog just might.

Center for Student Life