A question about university dress codes reminded me of an incident that happened when I was an undergrad, in which a classmate came to school wearing a really offensive and misogynistic t-shirt.

I was extremely uncomfortable, especially since this was an engineering program and I was one of only three or four female students in a class of about fifty. I had another class with the same student later that day and he was still wearing the shirt. I remember wishing at the time that a faculty member or someone with more authority than me would do something about it.

So, my question is as follows:

  • Should a professor intervene if a student in their class is wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students? If so, how?
  • If yes: are there any scenarios in which a professor should not do anything even though a student's clothes contains material that is hostile towards another student or group of students?

And finally,

  • If I come across this scenario as a TA, in which a student (who may be a peer in my program of study) in my class is wearing something offensive, what can I do about it? I don't feel comfortable (or safe, for that matter) as a woman confronting a male student about an item of clothing that is offensive to women. On the other hand, I feel like it is my responsibility to keep a non-hostile environment in my classroom.

Discriminatory harassment is forbidden by the university's code of conduct and includes: placing written or graphic material which demeans or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability.

The item of clothing in question contained a slogan and image that is indubitably demeaning and hostile towards women.

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    I don't really see how free speech comes into play here. The first amendment in the US is about the GOVERNMENT not restricting freedom of expression. If for example this is a private school, then there are no blanket free speech exemptions. In any case, that's not the question being asked.
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 6:41
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    Even if the school is public, it does not mean that the classroom is a public space that anyone has a right to (i) occupy and (ii) speak unrestrictedly in. For instance you need to stop talking when the instructor asks you to. Failure to behave appropriately in the classroom (as determined by university policy and the instructor) is grounds for being dismissed from the classroom and, if the behavior is especially flagrant and/or repeated, the course. Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 6:59
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    @Łukasz웃Lツ I said the "item of clothing in question contained a slogan and image that is indubitably demeaning and hostile towards women" - I don't consider that subject to misinterpretation, unless you think I don't know how to identify something that is demeaning and hostile towards women.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 14:22
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    I'm not really sure the outcome should hinge on whether the people here believe that the display was "sufficiently misogynistic" or not. Why not just take as stipulated that it indeed was: the question is really about what to do next, and that's a reasonable question to ask.
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 17:27
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    Not to side with your professor who didn't intervene back then, but as someone not growing up in the US and not very well acquainted with the slang culture, I could have been totally oblivious about whatever shirt you're wearing. I believe students who feel offended should contact the TA and professor as well, instead of hoping for an a-ha moment from the professor. Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 17:29

13 Answers 13


As an instructor -- or a TA, or whoever is leading a formalized academic session -- you have not only the right but some responsibility to enforce at least minimal standards of acceptable behavior. Some behavior is borderline and you do want to look to the other people in the room to see whether it is bothering them. Some behavior really isn't, e.g. discriminatory harassment as mentioned above. In particular if a student wears a tee shirt bearing what is clear to you is a slur related to

then as an instructor you should get them to leave right away. You say that you don't feel "safe" confronting a male student about this. This concerns me a little bit, as you are an authority figure even as a TA and especially as an instructor. If you are not willing to enforce your authority directly then I think you need to have alternate arrangements in mind that will do so: e.g. you could try to call campus security and not continue the class until they arrive. But I think one should realize that one absolutely has the right, and sometimes the obligation, to ask a student to leave the classroom under certain circumstances. If I were in this situation and the student were a 250 pound athlete, I would still ask him to leave unless I had some specific intuition that he would react physically or violently to that request. I don't have to feel like I can physically overpower someone in order to exert authority over them.

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    In general I agree with you about having authority even as a TA; but the kind of individual who wears a clearly offensive shirt to school is someone who has questionable judgement, and I'm concerned about confronting someone like that.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 7:18
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    @ff524: Well, of course you have to use your best judgement, and erring a little bit on the side of guaranteeing your own personal safety seems more than understandable. But you do need to do something. If a student's attire makes you feel that you cannot even reason with them enough to ask them to leave the class, then you have a huge problem with them in the classroom. It would then be appropriate to suspend or cancel class until the issue is resolved. Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 7:22
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    Put a statement in your syllabus reminding students about university policy in this regard, and that inappropriate attire is not allowed. You should discuss some examples of inappropriate attire (offensive language, revealing clothing, etc.). If you have a problem with a student, male or female, do as Pete suggested in an earlier comment and call security. The university should be more than happy to back you up on this. If they are not, then you have another problem Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 14:57
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    @PiotrMigdal I understand the idea: since I think it would be hard for me (a woman) to confront a guy who believes women have nothing valuable to say, I could ask a man to do it. But if I ask a male peer to do it, I am confirming the stereotypes this guy believes: women need men to fight their battles for them, women can't tell men what to do, etc. I want the intervention to come from a place of legitimate authority, not what this guy sees as "male authority." So I think escalating to a professor or dean is better than going through a peer.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 0:12
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    @Travis: I and ff524 and many other academics (as e.g. indicated here) would question the judgement of a student who wore a clearly offensive shirt into a university classroom. So I don't see the fallacy. Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 18:32

I'm a bit disappointed at the number of comments from people who say they need to know what the exact statement on this particular T-shirt was so that they can judge whether it was truly misogynistic before answering the question. The question is clear: What is the appropriate response given that a student is ``wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students''? Debating exactly what constitutes misogyny (or any other form of hate speech) is not the point here. Surely a question about whether a particular slogan is offensive would be too localised for academia.se, whereas the question of how the role of professor and/or TA affects how/whether one calls out offensive speech/behaviour/etc is excellent.

A couple of the other answers express surprise/concern at the OP's comment

I don't feel comfortable (or safe, for that matter) as a woman confronting a male student about an item of clothing that is offensive to women.

Many of the comments on this page illustrate why it can be so hard to call out misogyny as a woman. Women who call out misogyny are regularly accused of being "too sensitive" and told to "lighten up". On this page we've seen people who think they'd be a better judge of whether something is offensive than the person who actually experienced it, suggesting it may have been all in her head, refusing to trust her judgement, and claiming that no young people are misogynists. All this just from outlining a story that inspired a general question about calling out offensive behaviour. Is it any wonder that women may find it difficult to confront the person who's actually wearing the offensive T-shirt?

Finally, to actually answer the question:

Most universities should have something like a code of conduct which forbids discriminatory harassment. The one quoted in the question certainly seems to apply to a T-shirt with an offensive slogan. In this case the professor (or any student in the class) would be within their rights to object to the T-shirt. I might say something like "that T-shirt seems to be in violation of the code of conduct; please don't wear it to this class again", ideally in much the same tone as I would say "If I don't have your homework by tomorrow you will get a zero", but I'd say it loudly enough that anyone paying attention could hear. As with any instance of calling out something offensive, I would only do this if I felt safe enough: you should try to create a safe environment in your classroom, but not at the expense of your own safety.

If you don't feel safe or comfortable enough to call out your student (and I can see this happening especially if that student is also your peer), there might be other people you can talk to, for example the professor of the class you're TAing, or the head of the graduate program in your department, or the student's advisor. This might also be helpful if the student does not respond well when you first address them.

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    +1. I am disappointed, but not really surprised, at the unwillingness to take my story at face value. I can't count how many times I've heard "Women in STEM are treated just like anyone else no matter what you say you've experienced, because I've never noticed any discrimination"
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 1:51
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    Thank you for leaving this answer. It is an important contribution. Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 2:13
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    I'm disappointed as well. I expected better from academia.se. The only thing I would add to your answer is that a new professor should do a bit of research into campus security when they start. What is the phone number, how long do they take to arrive, what kind of help can you expect, etc. This information may be invaluable if a confrontational situation ever arises.
    – user6782
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 5:11
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    Even though I completely agree with what you have written in the first part of the answer, I am reluctant to upvote because it is not related to the question but rather to the (questionable) behavior of the community. For that purpose, I asked a meta question, concerning this and all other instances of people not answering the question but instead questioning the facts / interpretations as presented by the OP in the question. The second part of your answer is definitely a valid contribution.
    – penelope
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 10:38
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    @penelope I think the first part also addresses the question if you add the following sentence to the beginning: "If you choose to speak up, prepare for the possibility of having your motives and your judgment questioned, as they were on this forum."
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 6:06

A professor definitely has some shared responsibility for maintaining a harmonious atmosphere in the classroom. Given that the university has a code of conduct in place (as per the edit) it gives the professor some leeway to address the situation. But it might be difficult to do so without some initial prompting from the concerned students (because as a professor I can't claim to know what is likely to be offensive to students).

So to answer question 1, yes, if the issue is brought up or if it's otherwise clear that the T-shirt is disrupting class. As for question 2, it follows that if no one brings up the issue, the professor might not do anything.

If you're a TA, then there must be a professor. In that case, you should bring it up with them. Maybe they can "drop by" by accident when the student comes, and then they can deal with it without needing to imply that you're the one who brought up the issue.

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    As an undergrad, I definitely felt much too embarrassed to bring it up to the professor. I was stunned and insulted and just wanted to get out of there, fast. Knowing how I felt at the time, it's hard for me to swallow that the "victim" should be responsible for bringing it up.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 6:51
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    And, the material in question was really not at all "borderline" or subtle - anybody with eyes would know it would be offensive to women.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 7:00
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    "it's hard for me to swallow that the "victim" should be responsible for bringing it up." The problem being that even if it's universally offensive, you may have been the only one that noticed it. The professor isn't responsible for reading each word visible on each piece of clothing of all the students. It's not their job. When a legitimate complaint is brought to them, then they should act, but you can't expect them to act on everything you notice unless you also bring it to their attention.
    – Adam Davis
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 21:35
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    @AdamDavis I don't expect someone to intervene about something they have not seen, or don't understand is offensive. Suresh's answer makes a distinction between whether or not someone complained to the professor or otherwise made it obvious that they're bothered, which I don't agree with, because the victim may feel too intimidated or upset to express their discomfort
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 22:20
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    @ff524 perhaps time has made things seem worse, but it's difficult to imagine any words printed anywhere being so offensive that one feels compelled to run away in horror. If anything, most folks just mentally note how crass this individual is, and remember that in the future. You will never be able to stop people from offending you - and your sense of offense is likely different from other people's. Sure, everyone should feel comfortable, but sometimes you are just going to be more sensitive to something that's not a huge deal overall (you survived, and perhaps are a better person afterward).
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 18:46

Should professors intervene? Yes. Now, I think there's a level of personal judgement to be made here. Some people might overlook certain shirts. Some might think certain types of shirts are more offensive than they really are (ex: someone who's vegetarian might not like this shirt and I'd personally wonder if they have a sense of humor).

So, as discussed above, the "you can't go wrong" points are for race/national origin, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, age, and disability.

If I were a teacher (professor or a TA) and I identified something (or it was brought to my attention by a student) that someone is wearing an offensive shirt, then I would probably start by taking the student aside and letting them know that their shirt is offensive to some people, and that it displays remarks that make others uncomfortable, and that the student should not wear that shirt (and others like it) to this class again.

I would do this in private mostly because I don't feel that there's really a lot of benefit to publicly shaming someone who chose such a shirt - maybe they're a new first-year student who hasn't quite learned appropriate behavior yet, or maybe they're going through a phase, or maybe they just didn't think when they put the shirt on because they were drunk one night in Vegas when going T-shirt shopping. Give them a chance to improve. If they never wear the shirt again to class, to me that's a win.

If it happens again then I would not hesitate to walk up to the student after lecture starts and say quietly, "We discussed that you were not to wear shirts like this in class. Did you understand me last time? Do you think that this shirt is appropriate?" If the student isn't able to change the shirt or cover it up then I'd ask him to leave the class and then at that point would make an announcement about appropriate shirts.

Finally, if you are someone who is made uncomfortable by a shirt that someone is wearing then you should tell someone about it. Don't hold it in. Unfortunately lecturers generally only have control of their classroom (for example it's hard for a faculty member to kick someone out of a building, generally) but things like this can be reported.

  • "someone who's vegetarian might not like this shirt.." Heh, heh.. nice, but I prefer this one which might offend anyone that holds the Olympics in high regard. As an aside, my aunt (who is vegetarian but not a smoker) would probably smile/laugh at your example. Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 4:59

Should a professor intervene if a student in their class is wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students?

It depends on the situation, although IMO the answer in this example is yes. People do not have a right not to be offended, and offending people may be a positive thing in an academic environment, where people need to have their assumptions challenged. Nor is hostility, in and of itself, impermissible in a school environment. But:

  1. There's a problem with behavior that is offensive toward a group that is underrepresented in the field being studied.

  2. There's a problem with hostility that creates reasonable fear in other people, or that inhibits collegial discussion, or that is directed toward an underrepresented group.

For example, if an 18-year-old comes to my classroom in Goth clothing and acts resentful toward the world, it's not a big issue. It's hostile, but it's hostility that isn't a big problem. If a student wears a heavy metal t-shirt with a satanist message on it, it's not a problem because Christians aren't an underrepresented group; they're the dominant group, and it won't hurt them to be exposed to contrary ideas. Ditto for a t-shirt saying "Darwinists burn in Hell." But in an engineering class, a misogynistic t-shirt creates a hostile environment for women, who are an underrepresented group in engineering. A t-shirt reading "one faggot, one bullet" is also a problem because it could reasonably cause people to be afraid for their safety.

So IMO the t-shirt you describe is a problem in the context in which you describe it. The question is then how to handle it. If possible, do your homework and get bureaucratic buy-in before confronting a student about this kind of thing. Otherwise you can end up not being supported by your administration; as we've seen in the answers to this question, reasonable people can disagree about these things. In this situation, I would probably not say anything at all to the student during class. I would then go and have a five-minute conversation with my dean about what school policy is. If it's clear that school policy puts me on strong ground and that my boss will back me up, then I would email the student and say, "Your t-shirt that said X was unacceptable in my classroom for reason Y. I have discussed this with my supervisor and we are in agreement on how school policy applies here. Please do not wear it to class in the future." This private method of handling it lets the student not be embarrassed in front of others (which is a big deal to many 18-20 year olds) and makes it unlikely that we'll have a big classroom confrontation that would detract from instruction or possibly put me in physical danger. If the student then shows up wearing the t-shirt again, despite the email, I would tell him to leave class, citing the email warning and chapter and verse as to my authority to kick him out. (In my case, there is a specific provision in the state education code that gives me that authority.) If he refused to leave, I would call Campus Safety.

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    Good observations about the range of events in reality... Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 0:53
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    This point of view seems completely wrong to me. You are basically saying that whether feeling offended is fine depends on how many other people share your attributes, which is absurd. In my opinion, truly offensive t-shirts (like the "Darwinists burn in hell" t-shirt you give as an example) should be treated in the same way as truly offensive t-shirts that target underrepresented groups. Just because you're a minority doesn't give you a right to needlessly offend the majority in a classroom setting.
    – Lentes
    Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 21:13
  • (1) "Darwinists burn in Hell." So this is okay? What if there is only one Darwinist in the class? This is quite possible in some areas and some countries. I think you are merely exposing your own prejudices with this answer. (2) "... a misogynistic t-shirt creates a hostile environment for women, who are an underrepresented group in engineering", What about a hostile T-shirt to men in a field like Gender Studies where men are under-represented? Is that okay? Commented Apr 4, 2019 at 14:03

If you feel like the clothes that a student is wearing is fostering a less than nurturing atmosphere in your classroom, it is definitely in your best interest to end this. When you're in a STEM field, it's concerning to see a misogynistic message on a shirt and I think you should find a way to end it.

Depending on the content of the shirt, I would debate whether or not I brought it up in front of the rest of the class. If it had some relation to the course and performance, I would have a hard time not bringing it up front-and-center to the class in order to stop any type of stereotype threat that may pervade the course. My debate on whether to confront during class would be based on thinking about the mentality of the students that are being oppressed in this case and what they may think, whether it be "that student is not wearing that anymore" or "I cannot believe the instructor did not say anything about that shirt," the latter of which was your response in undergrad.

I would stray away from anything that was accusatory or telling the student what to do, but would focus on asking leading questions that explained why it was not appropriate. This approach depends on the personality of instructor and your mileage may vary.

A more neutral thing to bring up to the student would be something about professionalism in the classroom. A discussion on college being about preparing one for a profession and/or higher scholasticism, and then ask the student if the classroom is really an appropriate venue for his wardrobe choice. Really, how to approach the student would depend on your comfort level, the context of the whole situation, and the explicit description of the Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy at your university. A higher-up may be able to help with regards to that.

This isn't an answer to your question per se, but I think this raises a good mindset in order to answer this question for yourself.

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    "When you're in a STEM field, it's concerning to see a misogynistic message on a shirt and I think you should find a way to end it." I agree, and I would only add that if you're not in a STEM field then it is also concerning... Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 7:43
  • I totally agree. I am just speaking from my perspective and knowledge base on teaching.
    – T K
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 15:33

I don't get the people trying to suggest a private conversation etc. The whole point is to restore the confidence of female students to work in a reasonable atmosphere.

This just calls for "You are not wearing this T-shirt to my classes. Get out and come back once you are wearing something appropriate." His bad luck if he relied on wearing that shirt through the day.

Don't start class until he's gone, if necessary calling campus security. Ask the other professors to do likewise when encountering similar material in order to maintain a professional and workable atmosphere, to avoid being considered the only one with standards.

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    I agree that I would have felt much less traumatized - even supported! - if anyone (professor, classmate) had publicly affirmed that the behavior is unacceptable.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 7:35
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    There are some risks with this course of action: (1) administrators may not support you; (2) depending on how much of a jerk the student is and how hostile (the student in this example is certainly a major jerk and very hostile), you can end up with a confrontation that disrupts instruction and/or puts you in danger. "Don't start class until he's gone" could be a recipe for wasting 30 minutes of instruction. If you multiply half an hour by, say, 50 people in the room, that's a huge instructional impact.
    – user1482
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 21:33
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    @BenCrowell: If the situation in class is unacceptable, then stopping the lecture for whatever length, or even stopping it for the day is a good idea. Continuing the lecture under bad circumstances will not be beneficial for the students.
    – Zane
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 8:34
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    One reason to have a private conversation is to avoid escalation, all the more because (in my experience) many students are immature, naive, ill-informed, and have scant conception of the impact of their actions on others, nor of the perception others will have of their random statements whether verbal or T-shirt-wise (gasp!). In particular, to come down hard on a 20-year-old whose T-shirt would be undeniably misogynist is an over-reaction. Let me not hesitate to continue ... that misogyny, especially in traditionally misogynist contexts, is bad. But/and then "defuse" by not ... (cont'd) Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 0:58
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    ... (cont'd) declaring an ill-considered T-shirt to be any more than a foolish, naive, ill-informed error... easily corrected by not wearing it ever again... "An educational moment", rather than polarizing? Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 0:59

Should a professor intervene if a student in their class is wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students? If so, how?


A professor should hold a discussion with a student when that student is in violation of the school's code of conduct.

If the clothing isn't in violation of the school's code of conduct, a professor will have to decide whether asking the student to desist is worthwhile or not. In some specific situations, asking a student to stop doing something may actually bring about a situation where they start intentionally coming close to, but not quite, violating the university code. In that case they may be offensive more frequently than they are currently, randomly picking out what to wear each day.

Are there any scenarios in which a professor should not do anything even though a student's clothes contains material that is hostile towards another student or group of students?

If it isn't against the school's code of conduct, the professor has little room to insist that certain clothing not be worn, but they can request a student stop wearing such clothing.

As above, though, it may actually exacerbate the problem.

If I come across this scenario as a TA, in which a student (who may be a peer in my program of study) in my class is wearing something offensive, what can I do about it?

We will assume, for the moment, that the clothing in question is not against the school's code of conduct, but it offensive to everyone, in every time, every situation, culture, place, etc.

First I'd evaluate how often it occurs. Is this student consistently bringing offensive messages to class, or is this a once or twice a semester problem?

Second, I'd evaluate how much it affects the class. Is the message visible to every student in class throughout the period, printed on the upper back with the student sitting in the front row, or is it hard to see except when the are standing up with arms at their sides, and then only by the instructor? In either case, does it prevent other students from paying attention, learning, asking appropriate questions?

Third, I'd ask others how they felt about the issue. Does it actually bother them, and did it bother them before you brought it up? I'd make sure this isn't merely a slight against me only.

Lastly, I'd decide, based on this information, if intervention is necessary. If it poses a significant, frequent problem, then I'd probably bring it up. If it poses a significant infrequent problem for a few students, I'd probably bring it up.

A simple, "Please don't wear that shirt to this class again," privately and quietly as they walk out of the class might be sufficient for most cases. Some professors excel at public shaming in a simple effective way. A humorous comment during the lesson referencing the student's poor taste in clothing might dissuade them from wearing similarly offensive clothing.

I don't feel comfortable (or safe, for that matter) as a woman confronting a male student about an item of clothing that is offensive to women.

That's a real problem. If they are communicating something, and you, who are in charge of the classroom, choose not to communicate, then who is going to handle the problem?

If you must, get a third person to back you up. Preferably someone with authority, and make sure the student understands not just that it's inappropriate, but how it makes you feel. If it's not just offensive, but threatening, to you then you have all the more reason to make your work environment safe. Tell your instructor that you can't teach a class where students are threatening you, and that you find certain articles of clothing threatening. Make your case according to the student code of conduct and it'll be that much stronger.

But you really shouldn't take a passive role in your teaching. You are learning skills now that will benefit you as an educator later, if that's the career you choose, and you need to learn how to do hard things. This might be one of them.

On the other hand, I feel like it is my responsibility to keep a non-hostile environment in my classroom.

Not just for the students, but also for yourself.

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    First I'd evaluate how often it occurs - I'm still upset thinking about this single incident years later, so I'd argue that if it is seriously hostile content, once is often enough to be a problem.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 19:46
  • It sounds like you were significantly traumatized by this incident. If the message was that offensive, and so offensive that you can't even post it here, then it sounds like the student should have been immediately ejected from class and not allowed to return until they discussed the issue with the appropriate school authorities, possibly facing legal prosecution and expulsion. Is that your assessment as well?
    – Adam Davis
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 19:55
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    I don't know if the best response would have been to stop class and eject him immediately (for the benefit of the other students in the room) or to send him home to change after class (so as not to reward his attention seeking behavior by making a scene). But he definitely shouldn't have been allowed to go through an entire day at school like that.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 22:13
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    @ff524 Note that t-shirts can be worn inside out ...
    – cfr
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 0:29

The word "misogyny" is is not strictly defined, and applied very loosely and emotionally by different people. You may say I know misogyny when I see it, I know when I'm offended, but your shirt wearer almost certainly didn't consider himself a misogynist. Considering how the word is applied across the internet, I can certainly understand how people feel that the best course of action still depends strongly on the actual content of the shirt, even if you personally feel it's objectively misogynistic.

Take the case of Matt Taylor. To some, that shirt represents a fun, kitsch re-purposing of 1950s sci-fi pulp imagery. To others, it's a very public sign of how unwelcoming STEM fields can be for women. Again, Taylor probably didn't consider himself a mysogynist, but people have condemned this shirt in terms exactly as strong as those used in the question. (For what it's worth, I expect that in your case, the shirt was actually much more offensive. I googled "mysogynistic t-shirt", and there are certainly some horrendous examples there.)

Another case-in-point is the punks of the late seventies wearing swastikas. They weren't Nazis, quite the opposite, but they felt they needed the strongest, most shocking symbol they could think of, to get the establishment angry. So if we imagine lecturing in the seventies, we could have a situation of a student wearing swastikas to class. That seems like the most clear-cut, unambiguous situation possible, but still, the student is not doing it for the reasons we think they are. And in fact getting angry, singling them out and getting security to escort them off the premises is just what they're hoping for.

People wear what they wear for strange and inscrutable reasons. For outsiders, a hijab may be a symbol of oppression, while for the wearer, it's actually a statement of emancipation. The same goes for t-shirts with movie posters, or death metal paraphernalia. Even swastikas. Of course, things can still be offensive if they're not intended to cause offense, but the lack of intent does change the situation, and what the best course of action is.

So let's take an extreme example: say a student comes to my class with a t-shirt that is absolutely shocking and reprehensible, and contains deeply disturbing imagery. Certainly, I would agree that something needs to be done, and it can't wait until the end of the lecture. So do I single him out in front of everybody, make a loud and public stand and force him to leave, possibly with the help of security? Or do I ask him to step outside with me and give him an opportunity to explain his reasons, and generally explain to him why I cant allow him back in?

Other answers have mentioned that the other students need to see that their safety is being guarded, and that the matter isn't iognored. Justice must be seen to be done, that sort of thing. Even so, I would still argue against the first strategy. I think there are three main reasons:

  • If I single the student out, I will antagonize him, and strengthen his belief that he did nothing wrong. I will lose any chance of actually influencing his behavior. You may feel that he doesn't deserve such considerations, but if I want to actually change things for the better, I have to be pragmatic.
  • As the responses here show, even if I think the issue is unambiguous, others may not. Especially with the misogynistic shirt, other students may take the side of the shirt-wearer. So while I'm making a stand and feeling good about myself, I'm actually creating a division in my classroom. This will make the atmosphere less safe in practice.
  • The student may be suffering from something bordering on mental health issues. Perhaps a compulsion to be socially inappropriate, or a deep self-loathing causing him to lash out at others in whatever way he can find.
  • Finally, and I think most importantly, everybody has a fundamental right not to be ascribed an opinion. Even if the guy's covered in swastikas, he gets at least one chance to explain himself, and to do so in a non-public setting. I may be wrong in my interpretation, I may not. The point is, everybody deserves at least on opportunity to explain themselves. I think that's a fundamental right, and it's not lost simply because you wore something I didn't like, however objectionable it is.
  • To the downvoters: comments are welcome. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 12:14
  • 1
    Tourettes does not involve a compulsion to shock. The end of this answer is fair, although it rather loses sight of the main problem which is the behaviour and its effects, rather than the intention. (I agree the latter may affect the best strategy.) But, really, the first 2 paragraphs invoke all the stereotypes about 'emotional' women getting upset over nothing and calling it 'misogyny'. The word is perfectly well-defined. This is true even if it is misused. Lots of words are misused. Do you routinely begin answers with the possibility that the asker may be misusing them?
    – cfr
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 0:46
  • 3
    @cfr I'm not saying that the word is misused, or that the OP didn't know what she was talking about. I'm saying that the word clouds discussion. It's a word that means different things to different people and yet carries a very strong emotional charge. Therefore, it's a good exercise to taboo it and try to use more objective, and precise language. Specifically, to separate effect and intent. That way, we can have people legitimately being upset about a t-shirt, without inferring anything (either way) about the wearer's intention. Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 1:37
  • 1
    I see now that my use of the word "emotionally" in the first paragraph invokes a stereotype of women responding to instances of sexism "emotionally" and the fallacy of equating an emotional response with an irrational one. That was absolutely not my intention. I certainly didn't want to dismiss or diminish the OP's experience. Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 1:58
  • 1
    I don't disagree with anything you've said, and very strongly agree that 'misogynistic' is a problem word for the reasons you've stated-- it presumes something about the mindset or beliefs of the person being referred to and therefore invites argumentation/rebuttal/offense that is likely to derail any attempt at communication. I was surprised at the downvotes too (I upvoted); I suspect it's because your answer, on the face of it, seems to be about defending the t-shirt wearer and not offering much in the way of possibilities for resolving or at least reframing the OP's problem.
    – Don Hatch
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 10:54

First step in any conflict should be communication. If I were in your shoes I would have likely go up to the person in question and ask them what message they want to convey by wearing that particular attire.

The reason I have this belief is that what constitutes offensive is very subjective, as one might take offense at anything really. Please note that I am not saying or implying that it was the case for OP, but without knowing the level of "offense" in question, it's hard to make a generalized judgement. In that case, it's always a good idea to peacefully confront the person and tell them that you feel offended. That's my first point.

The second point I would like to make is that the primary responsibility for sorting out your disagreements is on your own shoulders. It is in general frustrating to expect someone else to intervene and fight your battles for you. People of authority (the teacher in this case) might not notice the offense, or not realize how uncomfortable it makes you feel, unless you actually make that clear for everyone involved.

In the specific scenario that is depicted in the OP, I cannot imagine why you would not be allowed to point out that your classmate's attire is offensive and not suitable for public spaces, let alone a classroom. If the person reacts badly, then you have more of a case for disciplinary action against the classmate with the offensive clothing. Then the professor/TA/security and even other classmates would likely to be on your side.

If the person reacts in a favorable way (i.e. apologizing for the offense, and explaining that they did not mean to offend anyone) you have even taught your classmate something about good manners.

  • 9
    If graffiti containing an unambiguous racial slur is posted in a public place, do you think the local authorities have no reason to intervene until someone complains? I don't think it should necessary be the "victim"'s responsibility to complain to an authority figure. (As the "victim" it can be very intimidating and difficult to speak up when someone is wearing clothing that is overtly hostile to you)
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 14:24
  • 7
    @ff524: I haven't seen the message. Let's take a different route. What if the TA or Professor is TOO sensitive? What if a student wore a very US patriotic shirt to class and it offended say a small group of Iranians? Or what if the professor or TA is anti-military and finds it offensive that an ROTC student wears their uniform to class once a week? Point is it is very subjective so OP should tread lightly. There is no such thing as unambiguously offensive IMHO Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 14:39
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    @GIJoe I can definitely think of things that are unambiguously offensive; e.g., widely known racial slurs.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 14:41
  • 11
    "Bacon is awesome" is neither demeaning to, nor does it show hostility to, vegetarians. There's a difference between these examples and a slogan that is clearly meant to be hostile to a particular group. Showing approval for something some people don't like =/= showing hostility to certain people.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 14:51
  • 7
    OK, I agree that your answer would be helpful in a scenario where the message was offensive to me but not necessarily hostile. In my scenario (which of course you don't know the details of) I felt intimidated and traumatized by the hostility; I could not have said anything to the offender myself.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 15:01

Yes, teachers (including both professors and TAs) should absolutely intervene in such an instance. As everyone else has said, non-discrimination policies would most likely prohibit such offensive misogynistic expression in a classroom environment, and these are policies with which I would recommend all teachers familiarize themselves before they enter the classroom.

Let me mention one more reason that you should not just overlook such an incident: to prevent such things from happening in the future. Not all students are completely familiar with what constitutes improper behavior in a classroom. If nobody does anything, what's to stop that student from doing the same thing again?

Here's a related story from my own experience. One time, when I was a TA for an engineering calculus course, I got an in-class group assignment back from a pair of students, where one student circled the other student's name and wrote "is gay" as a joke. Being gay myself, I was pissed. (I had also hoped that the idea that "gay" could be used an insult had gone out of acceptance by that time, in 2012. Guess not.) At the time, I didn't know who did it; it could've been someone outside the pair, but it certainly wasn't the student whose name was circled due to the handwriting being different. I also didn't want to falsely accuse anyone, or put anyone on the spot. I didn't quite frankly care who did it; I just wanted to make sure my students knew that this behavior was unacceptable.

So the next class, I read the university non-discrimination policy to both my classes and I told them what had happened, without naming anyone (or the class it happened in). I said that I didn't care what anyone said or did in their free time, but in my class, I wouldn't stand for people doing things like this.

My first class, I couldn't hide my tension or my anger when I was saying all of this. The second class, which was the one with these two students, I did the same thing, but I was much calmer because I had already done this with the first class. The two students ended up apologizing to me when I handed back the paper, and I (calmly) said that I wasn't accusing anyone of doing anything, but I just needed to make sure that everyone understood that this wasn't acceptable.

In retrospect, the only thing I would have done differently in my case is practice my speech beforehand so I could convey the seriousness of what I was saying without the tension and anger I had during the first class. (Some people don't react as well to tension and anger.) That aside, I did feel good affirming for my students, some of whom were likely LGBT themselves, that my classroom was not a place where I would accept any such inappropriate or discriminatory behavior. And finally, I made it way less likely for anything similar to happen in the future on my watch.

Your case is different, because it involves quite the open display of inappropriateness. In your particular case, I would walk up to the student and tell this person that wearing such a shirt in the class is inappropriate and goes against school policies, and that he needs to leave and change into something else before he returns to your class. The students who are concerned about the shirt will most likely notice your action and feel relieved that you are addressing it.

I'm not so sure that you should call him out from the front of the classroom, although you certainly have the right to do so. The student might find it humiliating to be called out in front of the entire class (especially in a large lecture), and moreover it's a little impersonal. (Although I addressed my situation with the entire class, keep in mind that I didn't know who had done what and I didn't name anyone. Also, if you just read the non-discrimination policy out loud in your case, it will be pretty obvious to everyone who you're addressing.) I think the best outcome would be with a private or semi-private, direct conversation as I suggested above.

On the other hand, if you're intimidated and worried about possible physical violence, then you could opt to ask this person to leave in a semi-private manner but with a reasonable physical distance between the two of you, while many other students are around. This allows for witnesses in case anything goes awry. (This does seem like an unlikely scenario, but your safety is paramount.) If this option is not safe enough to you, then as Pete L. Clark has suggested, you should call campus security and wait until they arrive before starting your class.


Should a professor intervene if a student in their class is wearing clothing that is likely to be offensive and hostile to other students? If so, how?

As with most things in life, it can be somewhat complicated. In professional settings rule of thumb is usually to "Praise in public, reprimand in private." Thus, while it may make sense for the professor to intervene, the best time to do so would likely be after class has concluded. How good or bad of an approach this might be in an academic setting might be up for debate, since a "teachable moment" might be lost for the rest of the class, but it also allows the student opportunity to save face.

Another thing of note along this lines, even more so since nobody else mentioned it, is that is also gives the professor a chance to check to make sure the student really understands the mean behind things. I've been in environments where ten to twenty percent or more of the students in a given class might be exchange students. Their cultural norms can be drastically different and they might not even fully understand what a slang term can mean. This allows for a much more robust conversation about things than just a "Don't wear that shirt again." being directed at the student.

If yes: are there any scenarios in which a professor should not do anything even though a student's clothes contains material that is hostile towards another student or group of students?

This is likely going to be very subjective since the professor may not always be aware of the situation (e.g. quote in a foreign language, very large lecture hall where the professor can't even see the student, etc.). To a certain extent the student body needs to assist the faculty in being aware of some of the situations so they can be dealt with. Another scenario is protest campaigns to reclaim certain terms by effectively displaying those terms yourself. So at the end of the day, situations are going to arise, but likely it would need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

  • 2
    this isn't a performance review. The shirt was seen in public. If you refrain from objecting to it in public then you are refraining from assuring the rest of the class that you will protect them from hateful speech. Letting it go and then discussing it privately might or might not prevent a recurrence, but it doesn't reassure any class members who were upset by it. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 12:27
  • 1
    @KateGregory Except in academia we need to be mindful that not everyone is aware of our cultural norms. An exchange student might not have the faintest idea that a phrase is offensive or even what a word means so there is nothing gained by embarrassing them in front of the entire class. Plus, I would like to think that most people would catch on that if a student is asked to stay behind after class that they would know what the topic of discussion would be.
    – anonymous
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 13:19

I habitually wore Black metal T-Shirts, which can have offensive lines, as an Undergrad, which never got me into trouble. But, some people asked me why I like this kind of T-shirt and I tried to explain my reasoning. This worked very well and I formed strong friendships with some of these people.

And I, personally, tried hard not to judge people from their appearances - which was never 100% sucessfull, but I think is a worthwile attempt.

So, I think the best first step is simply asking the person WHY he is wearing this t-shirt. Every person with a provacating T-shirt gets asked now and then, so it should be no big deal. Running to your teachers first is similar to running to your mommy and not really grown up behaviour. Disclaimer: I come from germany, where a much wider range of clothing is deemed acceptable in academia, especially social sciences and CS.

  • 4
    This fails to address the specifics of the question. The question refers to a t-shirt that was not just offensive but offensive toward a specific group (women) in a way that violated the school's rules against "discriminatory harassment." This was stated to be in the context of an engineering program; women are underrepresented in engineering, and it's important not to create a hostile atmosphere for them. If your heavy-metal shirt had, e.g., a satanist message, that's a different case, because although it might offend Christians, Christians are not an underrepresented group in engineering.
    – user1482
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 20:21
  • 1
    Regarding the specific shirt you used to wear (not the shirt I encountered), Wikipedia says: "The T-shirt is banned in New Zealand, a handful of fans have faced court appearances and fines for wearing the shirt in public." (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cradle_of_Filth)
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 4:01
  • 2
    @BenCrowell If satanists are underrepresented in engineering, does that mean that I must be careful not to offend them? Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 15:27
  • 14
    I'd like to -1 for "Running to your teachers first is similar to running to your mommy and not really grown up behaviour". This essentially makes yet another recourse unavailable to those who already feel victimized (and are uncomfortable with direct confrontation), by dissuading them from the only thing they can see to do (approach authority figures), and implying that they should feel bad about themselves for doing it. Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 17:58
  • 5
    @EricWilson: If satanists are underrepresented in engineering, does that mean that I must be careful not to offend them? Yes. But I'm not aware of any evidence that they're underrepresented. Ditto for atheists, left-handed people, or Albanians. When we talk about underrepresented groups, we're talking about groups that are underrepresented in proportion to their numbers in the general population.
    – user1482
    Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 17:33

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