A President Barack Obama costume including a noose worn at the Saturday Badger football game sparked outrage on social media from alumni and students, including critiques of UW-Madison officials' defense of free speech.
The university quickly issued a statement on the costume, labeling it as offensive while still defending individuals' rights to wear offensive costumes.
“The costume, while repugnant and counter to the values of the university and Athletic Department, was an exercise of the individual’s right to free speech,” read a statement from the university.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank also addressed the costume Sunday, defending the person’s right to wear it if the noose was removed.
“As offensive as this costume was, I believe our university must resist the desire to outlaw forms of speech and political dissent with which we disagree,” Blank said in the statement. “We strive to build a campus community in which ideas and expression are exchanged freely.”
However, Blank added the costume “fell painfully short” of the university’s standard for thoughtful discourse.
A person at the game tweeted out a picture of the costume, which quickly spread through social media, sparking a debate about the line between free speech and offensive imagery. As of 11 p.m., the original tweet has more than 3,000 retweets.
Former UW-Madison Police Department Chief Sue Riseling also agreed with the university’s statement, saying the person was exercising their First Amendment rights.
Many critics responded on social media, labeling the costume as hate speech. Several people who identified themselves as alumni of the university said they were disappointed with the university’s response.
One response on Twitter called the statement from the university “appallingly misguided,” and stressed that “hate speech is not protected as free speech.”
They urged UW-Madison to revisit their in-stadium costume policy and consider a stronger response in the future, such as revoking the person’s season tickets or permanently banning them from the stadium.
UW-Madison basketball player Nigel Hayes also commented on the situation, saying he was offended the fan was even allowed into the game.
UW Athletics' Guest Services approached the fan when the noose was spotted and requested that the person either leave or remove the offensive parts of their costume. The person quickly complied, leaving the stadium voluntarily, according to UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone.
Masks can be worn inside the stadium, though they cannot be worn when entering the facility, but nooses are not allowed in Camp Randall, according to university officials.
UPDATE Oct. 30 4:55 p.m.: The article was updated to include an additional response from Chancellor Rebecca Blank.