SD students could soon be free from 'free speech' zones

"Free speech zones" could soon be OFF LIMITS for public universities in South Dakota.

A law banning them also prohibits universities from discriminating against a student organization “based on the content or viewpoint of their expressive activity.”

The South Dakota Senate passed a bill eliminating “free speech zones,” and ensuring that public institutions of higher education in the state cannot prohibit organizations from requiring that members agree with the groups’ beliefs. 

HB 1087 was originally considered dead and did not pass the State Affairs Committee on Feb. 27. 

However, amid the University of South Dakota Law School allegedly telling an organization that its “Hawaiian Day” party was not inclusive, the committee voted to advance the bill to a Senate vote, according to The Argus Leader. The bill passed by a vote of 26-7, Campus Reform learned.

The passed legislation accomplishes some central goals that members of the state legislature have tried to pass for the past year.

  • HB 1087 bans “free speech zones” from any public institution of higher education in South Dakota, now requiring that “any outdoor area within the boundaries of a public institution of higher education constitutes a designated public forum.”

  • Universities cannot discriminate against a student organization “based on the content or viewpoint of their expressive activity” and further states that funding to student groups will be doled out in a nondiscriminatory fashion.

  • Public colleges and universities in South Dakota can no longer prohibit any “ideological, political, or religious student organization” from requiring that members agree with the group’s “sincerely held beliefs, comply with the organization’s standards of conduct, or further the organization’s mission or purpose, as defined by the organization.”

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Additionally, the South Dakota Board of Regents will submit an annual report on free speech to the state governor, which includes all actions taken by public colleges and universities to encourage free speech and will include any events which impeded on free speech.

The sudden change of attitude by the South Dakota Senate comes amid the USD Law School advising the Student Bar Association to change the name of its “Hawaiian Day” party to “Beach Day” because it was not inclusive enough, as Campus Reform previously reported.

USD’s Student Bar Association attempted to keep the same dress code as the “Hawaiian Day” party but was again impeded by administrators who told them that wearing leis was “culturally insensitive” after the filing of a complaint.

Trevor Gunlicks, chairman of the South Dakota College Republicans, advocated for the bill and told Campus Reform he believes the Hawaii party was part of the reason the bill was revived. 

“I believe there were several things that led to the revival of this bill. Here in South Dakota, there was [a] mass media storm over the way the Hawaiian-themed celebration turned into ‘Beach Day,’” Gunlicks said. “It was mocked as a joke, especially amongst social media sites, and was not taken well in political circles. It frankly made USD and its law school look like jokes and embarrassed South Dakota as soon as it made national news.”

However, he also credits the revival of the bill to the incident at UC-Berkeley, where a Leadership Institute employee was punched in the face while tabling with another conservative organization.

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“Nationally, we have had a focus on campus free speech due to the incident at Berkeley with Hayden Williams,” Gunlicks said. “Also, the weekend prior, it was national news that during his CPAC speech, the President threatened cutting federal funding for research for colleges that do not protect free speech.”

The President of USD has opened an investigation into the interim law school administration that made the decision, stating that administrative censorship is a serious issue, and is not something USD condones.

The South Dakota House passed a similar version of the bill, only with different amendment proposals. The bill will now go back to the House where lawmakers can either accept or reject the proposed changes to the Senate bill. If approved, the bill would then go to the governor’s desk. If the House rejects the changes, the bill would then go to conference committee where members from both chambers would come up with a bill capable of passing both the House and the Senate.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @asabes10