AP NEWS

South Dakota enacts law to bolster conservative intellectualism at colleges

March 22, 2019

South Dakota has enacted the first-of-its-kind “campus intellectual diversity” law, bolstering efforts to shore up lagging conservative intellectualism at its universities.

“Our university campuses should be places where students leave their comfort zones and learn about competing ideas and perspectives,” Gov. Kristi Noem said in a statement. “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 new law stipulates that colleges will be barred from establishing so-called “free speech zones” on its campuses and directs the South Dakota Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s six public universities, to submit to the governor and legislators an annual report identifying “events or occurrences” that impede intellectual diversity.

“This final bill represents a model for bringing transparency to levels of intellectual diversity and protecting it as an indispensable part of higher learning,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the nonprofit American Council of Trustees Alumni.

Mr. Poliakoff, who taught in the Classics Department at Hillsdale College, has described the bias against conservatives in higher education at a “crisis” level. He said his group offered “advice at some key junctures” to South Dakota lawmakers in crafting the legislation.

The bill underwent significant revisions, including the dropping of a requirement that all students complete three credit hours of civics and that institutions post an online “wall of shame” identifying free speech no-no’s such as blocking a visiting speaker.

Last fall, the regents adopted sweeping new language in the handbook, including the so-called “Chicago Statement,” which embraces free speech even when some students find the expression “offensive or disagreeable.” After a month of legislative deal-making, the bill passed in a stripped-down version, with an endorsement from the Board of Regents.

“While the Board of Regents believe that systemic change in supporting and creating opportunities for free speech and intellectual diversity is best served by thoughtful policy created in the way we’ve shown we can do with our newly-minted policies, we also understand the legislative imperative that is driving this bill,” Paul Beran, executive director and CEO of the South Dakota Board of Regents, testified before the legislature in support of the legislation.

State Rep. Ray Ring, a retired economics professor and Democrat who represents the college town of Vermillion, opposed the bill. He told The Washington Times he doesn’t see suppression of free speech on college campuses.

“In my 40 years of teaching, I didn’t ever feel it’s been a problem at USD [University of South Dakota],” Mr. Ring said. “Way back in the 1980s, I saw someone got shouted down from the audience when we had a speaker who a Marist priest who spoke as a critic of our Central American policy, but that was it.”

He said he taught about everyone from Karl Marx to Milton Friedman in his history of economics class and hoped that intellectual freedom would remain.

Last month, USD President Sheila Gestring made statewide headlines when she announced an independent inquiry into whether an interim law dean’s suggestion to a student law school group to change the title of its winter social event from “Hawaiian Day” to “Beach Day” to avoid exoticizing indigenous islanders amounted to an overreach by administrators.

The legislaton’s sponsor, Rep. Sue Peterson, said the Hawaiian flap is another example of political correctness run amuck on college campuses.

“The evidence reveals that there are increasing efforts to stifle free expression on campus and that our campuses are becoming ideological monoliths,” Ms. Peterson said. “And this law addresses those problems directly.”

The bill’s signing came on the eve of the issuance of an executive order by President Trump that will prohibit federal grant dollars from investing in research projects at schools that do not certify as complying with intellectual diversity standards.