A group of students at the University of Albany are demanding that a coronavirus-themed party — featuring buckets of Corona beers and partygoers in surgical masks — be treated as a “hate crime.”
The controversy started when the Twitter account @BarstoolAlbany (which, by the way, is not officially affiliated with Barstool Sports) posted a now-deleted video of the off-campus party with the caption: “Corona virus isn’t gonna stop anyone from partying.”
WGY News Radio, a local station, also reported that a quick, “if you blink, you miss it” shot in the video seems to show “a white sheet with the word virus and two faces.”
The outlet’s report states:
One has the letter X over each eye and looks like a sick face. The other is a frown, with what looks like straight lines for eyes. Is it supposed to be an Asian person with the virus? It certainly looks like it could be.
In response, the school’s Asian American Alliance issued a statement on Instagram, demanding that the university “investigate this illegal student group and related UAlbany students, requiring them to delete this video and to apologize on their Instagram homepage.”
“The Office of the President shall inform all UAlbany students to stop racism and disrespectful slogans in any situation, especially coronavirus hate crime against Asian American students and scholars based on groundless suspicion of virus hosts,” the statement continued. “Your precaution will be essential to prevent this crime from reoccurring in New York state.”
In its own statement, the college called the party “distasteful and hurtful,” and the Democrat & Chronicle is reporting that it plans to investigate.
Now, first of all, I’d have to agree with one thing: The party was absolutely in poor taste, and I say this as someone who has a pretty high tolerance for these sorts of things. I mean, I celebrated my 28th birthday with a Donner Party–themed party — I called it “The Donner Party Party,” and brought rubber severed limbs to the venue — and I’ve still got to say that this was bad. There’s funny, there’s darkly funny, and then there’s contributing to xenophobia while also managing to, at the same time, mock very real victims of a very real, still ongoing crisis.
The students involved should be ashamed of themselves, and the students who knew better shouldn’t hesitate to shame them. The thing is, though, that’s really as far as it should — or even can — go.
As Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stated:
To be clear: Per the reported descriptions, the video, the Instagram post, and the partygoers’ expression related to the party’s theme are all protected by the First Amendment. SUNY Albany is a public institution and may not punish its students for expression protected by the First Amendment, no matter how offensive others may find it. As the Supreme Court held nearly fifty years ago, in a case involving a student newspaper’s depiction of police officers raping the Statue of Liberty: “the mere dissemination of ideas — no matter how offensive to good taste — on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’”
Steinbaugh is, of course, correct. All too often, we see people on college campuses spending a lot of effort trying to convince the powers that be that a particular form of speech or expression was not just offensive, but very offensive — as if proving a high level of offensiveness would somehow make them obligated to punish the offender. But the truth is, whenever we are talking about speech or expression, there is no level of offensiveness that could ever cancel out the fact that the First Amendment protects all speech.
In other words? These students were being a**holes, but the way in which they were being a**holes is protected by the Constitution.
It can be disheartening to see things like this, but no matter how upsetting they are, it still wouldn’t be smart to use them as excuses to weaken our rights. After all, once you allow the government to decide what speech is and is not okay, they have the vehicle that they could eventually use to silence yours — something particularly dangerous considering the fact that our freedom from government retaliation for criticizing our government provides such an important check on its power.
In this instance, the students who are upset about the party have every right to feel the way that they do. The instance where they’re wrong, though, is in thinking that they have the right to take away someone’s constitutionally protected speech, no matter how disgusting that speech may be. Thankfully, they, of course, do always have this option: to use their own speech to express their disgust, which in itself discourages others from being disgusting in the future.