Education

South Dakota’s Efforts to Protect Speech on Campus Could Be a Model for the Nation

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
A new law strengthening First Amendment protections at state universities is among the first to tackle this growing problem.

This Wednesday, June 26, the South Dakota Board of Regents will meet to discuss the implementation of one of the nation’s more forceful efforts to protect intellectual diversity and free inquiry on campus. Earlier this year, South Dakota enacted a new law intended to counter the stifling orthodoxy that weighs so heavily on the nation’s colleges and universities. The bill, S.D. 1087, requires public institutions of higher education in the state to “maintain a commitment to the principles of free expression” and to foster civil, intellectually diverse environments. It protects student organizations from viewpoint discrimination, requires an annual report to the legislature on campus intellectual diversity and speech suppression, and safeguards the use of outdoor spaces as forums for free speech.

Unsurprisingly, the bill has been dismissed by the higher-education industry as burdensome and unnecessary. A member of the South Dakota Board of Technical Education objected, “It’s pretty certain to increase costly bureaucratic mandates . . . it’s likely to lead to lawsuits . . . [and] I don’t think it has much of an effect on campus speech at all.” Student government leaders from the University of South Dakota (USD) and South Dakota State (SDSU) testified in opposition to the bill, which the president of USD’s student government association called, “an attempt at a solution to a problem that does not exist.”

And yet, lots of evidence in recent years has suggested that there is a problem on South Dakota campuses.

In 2015, USD shut down an on-campus viewing of a film on the “honor killing” of women in Islamic cultures, suggesting that the documentary was an example of anti-Muslim bigotry. In 2018, when a student at South Dakota State hung an American flag in his dorm to commemorate family friends who died in the 9/11 terror attacks, university officials removed the flag. The student told reporters that when he protested, he was informed “that the school’s speech policy was deliberately vague to allow for decisions based on the feelings of the community.” And just this February, the USD administration urged the hosts of a campus “Hawaiian Day” party to change the theme, deeming it insensitive to indigenous Hawaiians. When concerns about administrative bullying were raised, USD legal counsel A.J. Franken archly opined, “Students have the right to speak. They also have the right to refrain from speech.”

South Dakota’s experience is a microcosm of what’s unfolding across American higher education, and the resolution and implementation of S.D. 1087 may have national implications. After all, across the land, liberal faculty members outnumber their conservative counterparts five to one, and the disparity is starker still when it comes to the social sciences and humanities. Such a lack of intellectual diversity affects who gets hired at colleges and universities, who enjoys the platform provided by prestigious institutions, what gets researched, and what gets taught. As Luana Maroji recently pointed out in The Atlantic, when campus communities are thoroughly in the grasp of particular views and values, a natural result is self-censorship that is bound to affect what professors teach and how they teach it.

Indeed, in too many cases, the academy has abandoned its core values of free inquiry in the service of ever-more-rigid political dogmas. President Harry Truman, that voice of an older, more sensible left, made those values plain in his 1948 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Continuous research . . . may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumors, gossip, and vilification. Such an atmosphere is un-American . . . Science means a method of thought. That method is characterized by open-mindedness, honesty, perseverance, and, above all, by an unflinching passion for knowledge and truth.

Not only has the increasing dominance of certain views and values within the academy raised questions about the ability of campuses to support free inquiry, but research suggests that the quality of scholarly work suffers when the academics producing it all think alike. Educators, like anyone else, can fall prey to confirmation bias — and the more ideologically uniform a research environment, the greater the risk of that bias going unnoticed and tainting results.

The implementation of S.D. 1087 presents a number of practical challenges, but also a great opportunity. The goal, after all, is to encourage principled academics to defend their own core values against the efforts of an ideological vanguard of administrators, faculty, and students.

On this count, sensible suggestions abound. The National Association of Scholars has recommended that students take survey courses in United States history and government to provide a broader, more textured framing for today’s heated cultural debates. Model legislation from The Goldwater Institute recommends establishing “a system of disciplinary sanctions for students and others who interfere with the free-speech rights of others.” Stanley Kurtz, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has suggested that public colleges create an office with the mission of bringing a diverse array of speakers and perspectives to campus. And campuses would surely do well to report on metrics of ideological diversity alongside other traditional measures of student and faculty diversity.

Legislation that protects free inquiry in America’s public colleges and universities is, sadly, a necessary and appropriate response to the derelictions of the nation’s academics and campus administrators. As it discusses how to proceed, the state’s Board of Regents should keep this in mind, and observers should watch to see if the home of Mount Rushmore can provide a promising path forward.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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