Virginia Military Institute students who dressed in costumes that mimicked gay people, Nazis and Africans now face possible disciplinary action after photos from the Halloween party they attended surfaced on Richmond Independent Media Center’s Web site, Richmond.indymedia.org.
VMI has asked a board composed of a sophomore, junior and senior cadet to investigate and suggest what discipline, if any, the students must face.
The photos showed three young men posing as Nazis with their arms extended, imitating the Nazi salute. One had grown a small, stiff mustache similar to Adolf Hitler’s. Another photo showed a man with his entire body painted black, his white skin visible at edges of his loincloth. Two photos parodied gay men. In one, two men are dressed in T-shirts with the words “I [love] a man in uniform.” Another showed a cadet dressed as a sailor with a target taped to his buttocks, while a shirtless man crept up behind him.
“We knew the party happened, we knew it was going to happen,” said Lt. Col. Stewart MacInnis, associate director of communications and marketing at VMI. The administration was aware that it was a costume party, MacInnis told The Eagle.
According to a statement on VMI’s Web site, the party was supervised by “cadet leaders and the officer in charge of the barracks.” The Web site also said VMI believes “only a few cadets engaged in inappropriate behavior.”
“I think ... what we have generally is just these cadets who were trying to be funny,” MacInnis said. “We really don’t think it was mean-spirited, just ignorant.”
The photographs were taken by a student at the party and posted them on what was believed to have been a private online photo album that required a password, MacInnis said. A link to the site was e-mailed to VMI administrators the night of Jan. 26.
Leah Kreimer, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and president of the Jewish Student Association, said she was appalled by VMI’s attitude toward the case.
“I think it’s unfortunate, especially with VMI - those who chose to be in the military fighting for freedom and honor - and the fact they thought that was funny is upsetting,” she said.
Kreimer said she does not believe a comparable act could happen at AU.
“I’m confident that AU would have zero tolerance for that kind of behavior,” she said.
Faith Leonard, assistant vice president and dean of students at AU, said the situation is centered on freedom of expression.
“Freedom of expression is, of course, not a violation of the student conduct code,” she said. “Any behaviors… related to a group that were in violation of the student conduct code would certainly be adjudicated in keeping with the code, so it’s the behaviors that would be at issue, not the manifestation of freedom of expression.”
If any acts create tension between two groups of people, mediation services are offered in an attempt to rectify the situation, Leonard said.
This is not the only questionable act of expression to hit the headlines recently.
Great Britain’s Prince Harry was seen at a party earlier this year wearing what appeared to be a German uniform with a swastika on the arm.
A University of Colorado professor who wrote an essay after 9/11 comparing World Trade Center workers to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann resigned as a department chairman Jan. 31. Ward Churchill’s essay was not made popular until he was recently asked to speak at Hamilton College in New York.
Also, at Auburn University in Alabama members of the Beta Theta Pi and Delta Sigma Phi fraternities made national headlines in 2001 when they dressed as Ku Klux Klansmen and wore black paint, FUBU attire and dressed in shirts with the letter of a black fraternity on campus, Auburn’s The Plainsmen reported Nov. 8, 2001. One picture showed one of the fraternity members painted brown with a noose around his neck.
Auburn University disbanded the fraternities and expelled 15 students, as the president said their presence on campus would create a threat to the university. However, the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity was reinstated in Fall 2002 and Beta Theta Pi filed a $100 million lawsuit against the university for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The university also reinstated that fraternity.
Kreimer said everyone has the right to freedom of expression, but it must also be used with consideration to others.
“There is freedom of expression, but only to a certain point,” she said. “It’s also about tolerance ... and they clearly weren’t [tolerant].”