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Sen. Sasse faces criticism for commencement speech comments

Posted at 6:04 PM, May 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-18 19:32:59-04

FREMONT, Neb. (KMTV) — Graduation season is very different for the class of 2020, with many school districts turning to virtual ceremonies. Fremont High School's online graduation included a controversial speech from an alumnus, Sen. Ben Sasse.

The school district released a statement that it does not edit or censor guest speakers but says his words belonged to him not the school district. Those words are now making national headlines as well.

Here's some of what he said:

"You're going to say stuff at your high school reunion ceremony, ‘Remember that time that China started a big global pandemic that created the worst public health crisis in over a century and brought the economy to its knees and we had to stay at home and everybody was hoarding toilet paper and we all watched a documentary about some weirdo dude who was raising tigers?’"

In addition to referencing the Netflix show "Tiger King," Sasse talked about dealing with the "thugs in china" who let the coronavirus mess spiral out of control by lying about it. Sasse's campaigned called the comment a joke.

He also warned against majoring in psychology. Several prominent Nebraska democrats criticized Sasse for speaking that way at a high school graduation.

Sate Sen. Megan Hunt Tweeted:

State Sen. Adam Morfeld tweeted the following response:

Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb also responded:

The following is a statement by Sandra L. Shullman, PhD, president of the American Psychological Association, in response to Sasse's remarks:

“Senator Sasse’s remarks about psychologists were disrespectful and harmful. Psychologists have been on the front lines helping medical professionals and patients as they struggle with mental health issues triggered by the stress of battling the novel coronavirus. The expertise of these psychologists is needed now and will be needed in the coming months as those affected by the pandemic suffer from a variety of mental health and cognitive-related issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologists are at the forefront of offering behavioral interventions for those suffering from job losses, domestic violence, child abuse, substance use disorders and more. Our entire country has been deeply affected by this crisis. Psychological science and psychologists play critical roles in addressing the full range of impact on mental health needs—whether it is unemployment stress, relationship stress, increased anxiety and depression or institutional disruption.

"Psychology is one of the most popular majors in U.S. colleges and universities for good reason: Psychological science has applications to every aspect of life. Senator Sasse attempted to make psychology seem small, but it is not. Psychologists are engaged in a wide variety of activities from conducting research on all aspects of human behavior to consulting to large corporations to improve employee performance and productivity to helping people engage in more healthful activities. If anything, the senator should have encouraged these graduates to study and even pursue careers in psychology. That would have been a particularly important message in the Midwest, where the mental health workforce is stretched and psychologists are working to meet unmet needs.

"And the senator did not limit his insults to psychologists. He also labeled COVID-19 as the 'Chinese virus,' a term that has been rejected as fomenting discrimination against Asian Americans.

"We believe the senator is better than what we heard in his speech. We hope in the future he will rely on those instincts rather than hurling thoughtless insults at a profession whose mission is to not only improve people’s lives, but is addressing mental health challenges and confronting the high rates of suicide and opioid and substance use disorders in our country and internationally. The economic recovery will not succeed without psychological science being embedded in strategies to address the virus and the fear that has gripped our nation.”

3 News Now reached out to Sen. Sasse’s office and his spokesperson issued the following statement:

“Like he said in the video greeting, Ben’s proud of each of the graduates — and he believes their generation is tough enough to help lead us through the bumpy economic times ahead. It’s ridiculous that Chris Janicek and the Nebraska Democratic Party are complaining about Ben calling out China in a joke. He’s said this for months, because it’s true: The Chinese Communist Party’s coronavirus cover-up wasted time that could have contained the spread — those lies cost innocent lives in China and around the world. Pretending graduates are too fragile to hear the truth is silly."