UAlbany has coronavirus themed party in its crosshairs

The University of Albany condemned an off-campus coronavirus themed party thrown by students.

The public university called the theme "distasteful and hurtful," while a student group called it racist.

The University of Albany in New York criticized an off-campus coronavirus-themed party after complaints from a student group that the gathering was insensitive and racist. 

“We are aware of a coronavirus-themed party that was recently held off-campus and not sanctioned by the University at Albany," the Univeristy of Albany said, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

"The theme of this party was distasteful and hurtful and is not representative of UAlbany or its nearly 18,000 students...It is critically important that we treat all people with dignity and respect," the university stated, adding that "[a]ny allegations of conduct violations will be investigated and addressed through the University’s disciplinary process..."

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Video from the party was reportedly posted to Instagram but has since been deleted. It's not clear whether the user or Instagram removed it.

According to one local media outlet in Albany, the video showed Corona beers in a bucket of ice along with party-goers wearing masks. The video was reportedly captioned "Corona virus isn't gonna stop anyone from partying." The outlet also reported the video showed a sheet showing two faces, one with an "X" over each eye and the other with lines for the eyes. 

The lines were perceived to represent a person of Asian descent, which the Asian American Alliance called out in a separate Instagram post.

According to the World Health Organization, there were 77,794 confirmed cases of coronavirus cases worldwide as of Saturday. Of those confirmed cases, 76,392 were in China.

The student group blasted the party theme as "completely insensitive," calling on the university to "investigate this illegal student group and related UAlbany students, requiring them to delete this video and apologize on their Instagram homepage."

"Diseases that affect non-white populations are radicalized in a way that stems from the innate xenophobia of American society," the group added. "It serves to dehumanize the affected population." The caption of the Instagram post calls on the university to email the university to "let them know that this isn’t okay with us! UAlbany does not stand for this kind of racism."

UAlbany spokesperson Jordan Carleo-Evangelist told Campus Reform in a statement, "the university is working to learn more about the circumstances of the off-campus party to determine whether any violations of the code of conduct occurred. That review is ongoing, and I can't comment more specifically than that. But I can say that any potential violations would not include anything that qualifies as protected speech.

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But free speech advocates are weighing in to point out the party, however offensive it may be to some, is still protected speech.

"SUNY-Albany is a state university, and they're obligated to uphold the First Amendment... PERIOD," Nicole Neily, president of Speech First, told Campus Reform on Saturday. "They can't censor or shut down speech - or force students to apologize! - simply because people's feelings have been hurt."

"Humor, satire, and parody have long been used to lighten a difficult situation or speak truth to power - yet today, to do so puts a target on your back. Today, offending others is the worst crime that can be committed in higher education... and in the eyes of administrators and students, it is a transgression that must be PUNISHED to send a message," Neily continued. 

She added, "this obsession with protecting 'mental health' is counterproductive. Students cannot (and should not) live in a bubble. The world is not always a kind place, and students need to learn how to process adversity in a constructive manner."

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Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also weighed in, saying, "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." 

"That act is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment, even if others find it deeply offensive, racially offensive, or morbid. The act of hosting a party with a theme is itself expressive, and the First Amendment generally does not permit state actors — such as public universities — to make distinctions between whether expression is offensive or inoffensive," Steinbaugh added.

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