The South Dakota legislature recently voted unanimously to pass HB 1254, which will make it illegal to hire, fire, or accord preferential treatment to any person employed by a state higher education institution based on his or her ideological, political, or sectarian opinions. The legislation also prohibits the same actions based on a person’s “race, color, creed, religion, sex, disability, or national origin.”
Unfortunately, laws like this one are necessary to ensure equitable treatment in the face of growing “cancel culture.” Fearing social ostracization, online attacks, and reputational damage for expressing unpopular views, many Americans are self-censoring. In a recent survey of 800 Illinoisans, ACTA found that 64% of respondents “often” stop themselves from expressing their opinion on controversial political and social issues.
As the centers for intellectual advancement in our society, institutions of higher learning must safeguard viewpoint diversity. The free and open exchange of ideas from across the political spectrum is critical to the preservation of academic freedom on campus. Students must be able to disagree and debate with their peers and instructors without fear of censorship, and so must faculty, administrative employees, and institutional leadership.
Rather than leading the fight to protect intellectual freedom, many colleges and universities are contributing to the problem. In 2019, for example, the University of California System (UC) announced that it would require faculty applicants on some campuses to submit statements detailing their contributions to diversity and equity as an initial screen for employment. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dr. Abigail Thompson, chair of the mathematics department at UC–Davis and one of ACTA’s Heroes of Intellectual Freedom, pointed out the resemblance of the mandatory diversity statements to the loyalty oaths denouncing Communism that faculty were required to sign in the 1950s: “After a contentious period in which 31 faculty were fired for refusing to sign, the requirement was reconsidered. An eventual consequence was the current Standing Order of the Regents 101.1(d): ‘No political test shall ever be considered in the appointment and promotion of any faculty member or employee.’” Now, 70 years later, the University of California is once again establishing a political test to be eligible for employment.
ACTA applauds the South Dakota legislature for doing its part to prevent similar employment discrimination at the state’s public colleges and universities. In the current climate, it is imperative that more lawmakers follow suit.
For more information on the importance of protecting academic freedom on campus, please see ACTA’s Free to Teach, Free to Learn, a comprehensive collection of essays and bipartisan commentary from scholars, attorneys, and policymakers.