Sen. Ben Sasse Faces Criticism for Joke-Filled Commencement Address

May 18, 2020, 2:29 p.m. ·

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) in a recorded commencement speech for Fremont High School.

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Sen. Ben Sasse is facing criticism for his recorded commencement address to Fremont High School over the weekend.

Sen. Sasse, who graduated from Fremont High School in 1990, ended his speech with encouragement to use grit to overcome the challenges facing the class of 2020.

But other parts of his speech face criticism from a long list of politicians and organizations, including the Nebraska Democratic Party, the Nebraska State Education Association, and the Nebraska Counseling Association.

Sen. Sasse joked about the popular Netflix show Tiger King, "murder hornets," and said "everybody named Jeremy is the worst." Critics say his jokes were disrespectful to seniors and made light of their difficult situation.

Nebraska State Education Association President Jenni Benson:

"I am disappointed and disgusted by Sen. Ben Sasse's graduation speech to the Fremont High School Class of 2020. Sasse disparaged the graduates, their teachers, attacked mental health professionals, and promoted racism. Instead of building our graduates up, he promoted divisiveness and disrespect."

American Psychological Association President Sandra Shullman:

“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...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."

Nebraska Psychological Association Leadership:

"As highly trained mental health professionals and as community members, we are disturbed that a US senator would send such a message to these young people, who have already experienced high levels of community trauma and now face an uncertain future. We would hope that Senator Sasse, with whom NPA leadership has met many times to advocate for Nebraskans’ mental health needs, would demonstrate better judgment."

"You're stuck at home for graduation, and it isn’t even a top-100 problem," Sasse said.

Fremont Public School Board Member Michael Petersen says his attacks on China are racist, and says he heard complaints from numerous students, parents, and teachers about the address.

"Just the general sense that he didn’t take this moment in the lives of these young people seriously," Petersen said, pointing out this class of graduates faced historic flooding that disrupted their junior year.

"I think about a class who took leadership their junior year and their senior year had the spring turned topsy-turvy," he said. "Thanks for the student leadership — Fremont High needed it, the Fremont community needed it, and they really came through. The class of 2020 really is a great group of kids."

Petersen said after this incident, he's officially endorsed Sasse's opponent, Chris Janicek, in the upcoming election.

The Nebraska Counseling Association took notice because of comments joking about the mental health profession:

"There will always be money to be made in psychology," Sasse said. "That’s a joke, do not, if you’re headed to college, do not major in psychology. That part’s not a joke."

NCA officials wrote a letter to the senator saying his speech was “tasteless and demeaning to our field.”

"Perhaps it is easy to take pot shots at our field," the letter said. "After all, you are not the one sharing the space with children enduring abuse, people of all ages who are struggling to gain normalcy in their life after rape and sexual assault, people who are trying to gain sobriety after a long battle with addiction, which almost always ties in with another diagnosable mental health condition."

Sasse declined an interview, but spokesperson James Wegmann released a statement in response to the criticism.

"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," Wegmann said. "It’s ridiculous that Chris Janicek and the Nebraska Democratic Party are complaining about Ben calling out China in a joke and using it to fundraise. Ben’s said this for months, because it’s true: The Chinese Communist Party’s coronavirus coverup 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."

Fremont Public Schools also declined an interview, but released a statement from Superintendent Mark Shepard and Board of Education President Sandi Proskovec.

"We have received feedback on parts of the ceremony and would like to share some information for clarity in regard to the speeches by our guests," the statement says. "Including [the speeches] as part of the ceremony does not endorse the individual, the content of the speech or the interpretations of what was provided."

The statement says the district does not edit or censor guest speakers.

State Senator Lynne Walz also provided a recorded statement for the virtual commencement ceremony.

"You are not only the generation that had to deal and adjust to change; you will be the generation that makes the change," she said. "You have had the most insight and access thorough internet and social media, to visit places, learn how other live, understand our world and environment. You have the knowledge and the empathy. You really can make a difference."

Watch the speech: