A new ban on clothing that might be considered "offensive" has frequent Carnival Cruise Lines travellers wondering who gets to decide what the word means.
Carnival's announcement last month of the new ban has triggered a debate over the difficulty of regulating speech in an era when society is more divided than ever, socially and politically, and discourse seems to have no bounds. It also raised questions about whether the ban is even enforceable and whether it infringes on free speech rights.
Carnival's brand ambassador and senior cruise director, John Heald, revealed the addition to Carnival's dress code on his popular Facebook page, saying it was added to the FAQ section of Carnival's website "in the past few days."
The new section reads: "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."
Asked what prompted the change, Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said it resulted "after some incidents were reported in the media about other travel sectors where customers were wearing clothing with very threatening messages."
The reports "started a discussion about how we were prepared to handle such a situation and the need for clarification to both guests and crew."
In October, CNBC posted a tweet from a United Airlines passenger offended by another passenger's T-shirt that suggested journalists should be lynched. Although the airline did not remove the passenger wearing the T-shirt, it later released a comment saying, "We condemn the statements made against journalists."
Among competing cruise lines, websites of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian include no policies regarding offensive or respectful messages or attire. Disney Cruise Line asks guests to avoid wearing T-shirts with offensive language and/or graphics to its adults-only onboard restaurants. During nights in which guests are encouraged to wear costumes, Disney asks them to choose ones that are "family friendly, not obstructive, objectionable, offensive or violent."
Heald, who engages with Carnival fans daily on his Facebook page, said he brought up Carnival's new policy in response to a post about a woman who threatened to wear "disgusting and lurid shirts" on her cruise.
Quoting the fan who alerted him to the woman's threat, Heald posted: " 'She also says she is never sailing Carnival again and is going to advertise another cruise line with a slogan farewell b******s I am cruising on ----- . My question is will someone on the ship stop her from doing this?' "
Heald responded that Carnival won't allow the woman to follow through on her threat. "I hope this lady changes her mind and despite whatever she may think of me will have a brilliant cruise and enjoy the service and the fun that the crew will give her."
In an example of Heald's social media reach, 23,500 followers responded to a poll he posted asking whether they agree with the policy.
A decisive majority - 93% - of respondents said they agreed.
Cindy Trotman said she appreciated the policy because her autistic daughter "loves to repeat things that she reads" and "doesn't understand that some things aren't meant to be repeated."
But among the 1000 comments generated by the post were several that said people had second thoughts after voting in the poll, and others doubted that Carnival could enforce the policy.
Christi Poor asked if she would have to leave her favourite hoodie behind because someone might perceive it as a hate symbol. "People are offended so easily and by next to nothing," she wrote. "This is heading down a slippery slope if you ask me!"
Michael Guss asked whether the ban would extend to religious symbols on shirts and even jewellery, while Mike Bryant asked if it would include clothing with Confederate battle flag symbols. "To some it is racism, to others it is heritage," Bryant wrote.
Melanie Swift Guin generated 50 comments with a promise to wear a T-shirt with a drawing of President Donald Trump wearing an American flag bandanna and dark sunglasses over the phrase, "Murica!" The responses included Julie Brindle's critique, "It's not offensive. It's ugly," and Teri Steenberg's warning that any wearer "might just be swimming back to Long Beach."
Janice Heiman Batts said, "I love it when people wear their MAGA loud and proud" because it "lets me know who they are and who to avoid," to which Charmain Szostek responded, "They may wear their hats in hopes that people like you will avoid them."
Matt Jennings suggested someone would be offended by "Merry Christmas" and that vegans would be offended by a shirt about fishing. "Where does it end? A vague policy like that is just going to be a nightmare to police."
Recent cruiser Yanna Thierstein asked if being "respectful to other passengers" included, "Can we then ask some ladies to please not walk around in a thong on the Lido (Deck)? Or wearing a top that barely holds the ladies in and having to hold them in place while getting out of pools? The stuff I've seen this past week ... unbelievable."
Sue Frey asked who would enforce the policy. She recalled that "not one crew member" approached a woman who entered her ship's dining room wearing a shear cover over a thong.
While Heald assured his followers that the policy would be enforced "strongly," an editorial on the cruise-oriented website cruiseradio.net predicted that Carnival wouldn't follow through.
"Imagine being the crew members whose job it is to tell the very large, muscular man - who has been enjoying his (unlimited drinks) package all afternoon - that a fellow passenger has taken offence to his T-shirt, and could he please change out of it immediately?"
Carnival spokesman Gulliksen said that while Carnival crew members are "not onboard to be the clothing or expression police," staff members will nonetheless "look out for guests wearing clothes with inappropriate images or language and ask them to change as needed."
He added, "We will evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis and take appropriate steps as necessary."