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Universities say they’re complying with campus speech law

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — South Dakota university leaders told state lawmakers on Wednesday that they’re working to implement a law aimed at ensuring free speech and intellectual diversity, after one legislator accused them of “slow walking” the reforms to avoid fostering conservative thought on campus.

The legislature passed the bill last spring after controversy over a “Hawaiian Day ” party theme at the University of South Dakota revived conservative lawmakers’ complaints about political correctness on campus. The Board of Regents opposed the bill as unnecessary, citing unfunded testing and reporting mandates.

At a meeting with a legislative committee Wednesday, the university presidents said they have been training students and faculty on protecting speech and working with groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that promotes free speech on campuses. The presidents said they’re also working to gauge students’ experiences on campus.

Several presidents said they have not found any instances of students feeling that freedom of speech was hampered.

“Our problem is not that we have people shouting speakers down,” said Barry Dunn, the president of South Dakota State University. “Our problem is that we are not educating enough people post-secondary.”

Speaker Steve Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, said the law is needed to counter what he considers an “increasing amount of socialism” on campuses nationwide.

Democratic state Sen. Susan Wismer scoffed at Haugaard’s fears.

“Every single lever of state government is controlled by conservatives and yet they are portraying conservative thought as a victim,” Wismer, of Britton, said. “Maybe that’s what sells these days.”

In a letter to the regents, Republican State Rep. Sue Peterson of Sioux Falls said she had heard from constituents and students that universities were not implementing the law.

She asked the regents why they were not promoting speakers and courses with conservative ideas. She suggested the regents were “instructing campuses to ignore the requirements of HB1087 and/or to ‘slow walk’ any reforms. From recent media reports this seems to be accurate,” Peterson wrote.

After the meeting, Peterson provided a brief statement saying she was looking forward to the Board of Regents’ written report on its implementation of the law, which is due Dec. 1.

The National Association of Scholars and other groups have lauded the South Dakota law as the first of its kind.

Wismer said such groups are using the state as a “guinea pig” to promote similar laws elsewhere.

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