Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Stepping into an area that high school principals have long feared to tread, Carnival Cruise Line is launching a new effort to police how guests dress.

No, it isn't a continuation of the long-running campaign against T-shirts and cut-off jeans in the main dining room.

Carnival is going after attire that can be deemed "offensive" to other passengers. It is a noble effort that is likely going to generate some level of controversy because of the subjectivity of what offends different people.

I imagine the policy will only be wielded against obvious and blatant abusers. Likely targets in my mind would be the T-shirts that we've all seen in tacky beachfront sundries shops with sexual graphics or slogans. For a cruise line that carries 700,000 minors a year, this seems like a no-brainer.

It's is also not as hard as it used to be to imagine passengers dressing in hateful attire that can be passed off as some kind of political statement. On cruise ships, as elsewhere, politics and religion are best kept private until another guest signals their willingness to exchange viewpoints.

Why one needs a dress code or policy statement to prevent passengers from dressing to offend is another question.

Carnival's "what to wear" section on its website FAQ says: "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."

I suppose that Carnival is putting its ban on offensive attire into the formality of print to have something to point to if an offended violator of the policy decides to go to court to press their First Amendment rights.

But there are inevitably going to be gray areas. Is a fan of the Cleveland Indians who sports a shirt with Chief Wahoo on it being offensive? It was offensive enough that the baseball club banned the Chief's image from uniforms and stadium signs this year.

How about the Nike sneakers that featured a U.S. flag with 13 stars in a circle? The shoe company pulled them from the market, partly on the advice of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, because some white supremacists had adopted the historic Betsy Ross flag as their own.

It's going to be a tricky line to walk for a cruise line that encourages people to come as they are. I imagine this won't be the last time we write about what's offensive or inoffensive attire at sea.

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