EXCLUSIVE: SD lawmakers mount free speech pressure campaign

One question attempts to gauge the BOR’s thoughts on possible policy additions, such as a chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.

SD House of Representatives Majority Leader Lee Qualm (R) sent the state's Board of Regents 19 questions aimed to help lawmakers craft legislation that would promote free speech on campus.

South Dakota lawmakers in recent months have pressured the state’s Board of Regents (BOR) to implement policies geared toward fostering free expression on college campuses. 

Letters obtained exclusively by Campus Reform show that members from the South Dakota House of Representatives and state Senate remain heavily involved in pushing the BOR to adopt these pro-free speech policies. South Dakota House of Representatives Majority Leader Lee Qualm (R) sent a letter to the BOR in July, questioning the regents on various speech policies on campuses around the state.

A South Dakota Republican legislator confirmed the authenticity of these documents to Campus Reform on Friday. 

[RELATED: Texas college touts confusing ‘free speech zone’ policy]

“As you are aware from your recent hearing, the past legislative session witnessed an extensive debate over HB 1073 and SB 198, bills which were designed to promote free speech and debate on South Dakota’s college campuses,” Qualm wrote. “I am strongly committed to the goals underlying these pieces of legislation and I fully expect, based on conversations with my fellow legislators, that similar and related bills will be filed again during the next legislative session and that they will have the support of the governor’s office.”

Qualm attached a list of 19 questions to the BOR, all designed to help members in the South Dakota House of Representatives create legislation fostering free speech and debate on South Dakota college campuses.

Some of the questions reviewed by Campus Reform involve Qualm inquiring the BOR on instances in which free speech rights may have been violated on the state’s college campuses.

One, for example, questions the BOR on a South Dakota State University policy which allegedly gives administrators the right to remove any sign or poster which they deem “non-inclusive.”

Another question attempts to gauge the BOR’s thoughts on possible campus additions such as a chair in conservative thought and policy, a position similar to the visiting conservative scholar positions at the University of Colorado at Boulder, that would aim to address “a deep ideological imbalance on campus.”

Some of the questions also ask what the BOR thinks about certain issues, such as whether its members see the “lack of intellectual or viewpoint diversity on campus” as a concern.

[RELATED: College hangs up on student asking about free speech policy]

The President of the South Dakota BOR, Kevin Schieffer, responded to Qualm’s questions in a letter dated Sept. 14, agreeing with the South Dakota House Majority Leader that there needs to be more aggressive policies regarding free speech and expression. Schieffer acknowledged some perceived challenges, though, as explained in a second letter obtained exclusively by Campus Reform. 

“I think it is important to underscore the Board’s desire for and support of aggressive free speech policies,” Schieffer said in the letter. “But it is also important to note that this is not an issue that we can address in a vacuum. Title IX mandates, financial limitations, and sound educational objectives all need to be balanced, as you well know, and we have tried to do that with whatever South Dakota common sense we could bring to bear on the subject. It is a process that will continue as we get comment from and work with those interested in this fundamental part of education and civic discourse.”

About three months after Qualm sent the letter asking for clarification on speech policies, the South Dakota BOR announced in a news release that it had drafted policies regarding free speech and diversity, which are scheduled for a vote during its December meeting.

Included in these proposed policy revisions, according to a third letter, is a provision for adopting the “Chicago Statement,” which at least 35 universities have signed. The regents also proposed pro-First Amendment policy changes in their student code of conduct, sexual harassment policy, political activity policy, student organization policy, and ITS [Information Technology Systems] policies.

[RELATED: UMich caves after DOJ calls speech policies ‘unconstitutional’]

Just two days after the BOR announced the proposed policy changes, South Dakota state Sen. Jim Stalzer and State Rep. Sue Peterson, both Republicans, penned another set of questions to the regents.

The two legislators say that they are supportive of the BOR’s efforts to support free speech and intellectual diversity, but state that they “are also concerned with reports that university faculties are already organizing against any attempts to promote intellectual diversity.”

Stalzer and Peterson ask many questions similar to those posed by Qualm, but also press the BOR on so-called “diversity hires” and ask why colleges cannot make “intellectual diversity hires.”

While the BOR has proposed pro-free speech and expression policy changes, a source close to a member of the Board of Regents told Campus Reform that this is likely only the beginning of a battle between legislators and regents, which will continue into the next legislative session in January. 

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