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Should a Cruise Line Get to Tell You What to Wear?

If you *need* to be able to wear a shirt threatening violence to have a good time on your cruise, you probably need to be sorting out your priorities anyway.

Dress codes on cruises are nothing new. In fact, it’s fairly standard for cruises to require certain levels of formality for evenings, special events, or certain onboard dining areas. But a major cruise line recently updated its policies on what can—or more specifically can’t—be worn when it comes to the messaging on passengers’ clothing and accessories.

The new policy from Carnival Cruises states that, “All guests are expected to ensure their clothing and accessories are respectful to fellow guests. Specifically, items worn during the cruise should not contain any message that may be considered offensive or contain nudity, profanity, sexual innuendo/suggestions. In addition, clothing/accessories should not promote negative ethnic or racial, commentary, or hatred or violence in any form.”

John Heald, a Carnival Cruise brand ambassador, took a poll on Facebook asking if people agreed with the new policy. While 97% of participants voted that they agreed with it, there were comments saying that the policy was “too broad” and a “slippery slope.”

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The incident that prompted the change didn’t occur on a Carnival ship or a cruise ship at all. According to Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen, the updated policy is a result of discussions that occurred in the wake of an incident on a United Airlines flight. Back in October, a passenger on a flight was photographed wearing a shirt advocating for the lynching of journalists. Another passenger reported the threatening shirt, but was told nothing could be done about it “just because it was offensive.”

It’s actually very reasonable that fellow passengers wouldn’t feel comfortable or safe being trapped on a flight with someone who’s very casual about advocating for murder, generally.

The issue, however, wasn’t that the shirt was “offensive” or that it had a naughty word on it, the issue is that the shirt was threatening and it’s actually very reasonable that fellow passengers wouldn’t feel comfortable or safe being trapped on a flight with someone who’s very casual about advocating for murder, generally. But it’s especially disingenuous to dismiss something as “just a shirt” when the rise of violence against journalists is a real concern.

As to how the policy will be implemented, Gulliksen has said that crewmembers will evaluate situations on a case by case basis and that guests found to be in violation of the policy will be asked to remove the offending item–which is only reasonable considering it would be virtually impossible to have ironclad rules in place when there’s an infinite number of scenarios that could occur. When you get into questions of, “What’s offensive and what isn’t?” you’re inevitably going to encounter gray areas. After all, a red “Make America Great Again” cap doesn’t have explicitly threatening language embroidered onto it—and yet it’s easily argued that it’s become a recognized symbol of violent white nationalism, and the implicit message it carries is something that could leave many guests feeling offended, disrespected, and even threatened.

The con of a broadly worded policy is that it can be broadly interpreted. It’s possible that bad actors (both passengers and crewmembers) could exploit that ambiguity to find loopholes or to overreact to a “Life’s a Beach” tank top. However, some things are more cut and dry. When something is just outright violent, the matter is more black and white. So it’s particularly weak-willed of companies to say, “Well, it doesn’t violate our policy so there’s nothing we can do” when they have the ability to instate any policy they like. It’s decidedly a good thing that Carnival’s policies have been updated in such a way that allows them to take action if a passenger is walking around glibly invoking violence and murder.