South Dakota became the first state in the country to pass a law requiring its university system to promote intellectual diversity after Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill into law Wednesday.
The measure also bars the South Dakota Board of Regents and the state’s six public universities from interfering with constitutionally protected speech, including speech that some might find “offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed.”
“Our university campuses should be places where students leave their comfort zones and learn about competing ideas and perspectives,” Noem said in a release. “I hope this bill lets the nation know that in South Dakota, we are teaching our next generation to debate important issues, work together to solve problems, and think independently.”
The bill had the support of two national groups, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which promotes intellectual diversity, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that promotes free speech, association and religious liberty on college campuses.
“An act of this scale concerning academic freedom and intellectual diversity is unprecedented, and sets a strong example for leadership in other states,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of ACTA.
The bill was introduced after Republican lawmakers probed the Board of Regents for more than a year about incidents related to whether students’ free speech rights were being squelched by political correctness. Conservative groups have criticized colleges across the country following incidents in which conservative speakers were denied opportunities to speak, either by college administrators or angry protesters.
In response to lawmaker questions about free speech and so-called “free speech zones,” which limited where students had free speech rights, the board last fall passed new policies that guaranteed free speech on campuses.
But some lawmakers wanted those free speech rights, as well as the promotion of intellectual diversity, added to state law.
The bill passed the House but died in a Senate committee. However, lawmakers revived it after students at the University of South Dakota School of Law were asked to change the theme of a winter social from “Hawaiian Day” to “Beach Day” amid concerns that calling it Hawaiian was culturally incentive. The students were also told by the administration not to hand out lei, traditional Hawaiian flower garlands, at the party.
“Free speech zones send the false and illiberal message that a student’s First Amendment rights are dangerous, and should be constrained within tiny, pre-approved areas of campus,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “We commend legislators in South Dakota for recognizing the critical importance of free speech to higher education, and encourage other states to follow their lead.”
The Board of Regents, which had opposed the bill, agreed to a compromise version signed by Noem.
Besides promoting free speech, it requires each university to report each year what they did to promote intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas, and to describe instances in which intellectual diversity or the free exchange of ideas were impeded.
The intellectual diversity provision also had the backing of conservatives, who point to surveys showing that Democrats far outnumber Republicans among college faculty and administrators.