The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been protecting free speech since 1789. It was written by the Founding Fathers whose genius and willingness to compromise created a democracy envied by others while enduring challenges from those who want to distort or nullify it for narrow and often political purposes.
Such is the case with House Bill 1073, an onerous piece of legislation that aims to regulate free speech on college campuses by demanding policies with language influenced by lawmakers, requiring the state’s public universities to file annual progress reports to lawmakers, and encouraging individuals to sue the state if they sense an injustice.
The bill is sponsored by 30 lawmakers, including Senators Phil Jensen, Terri Haverly and Alan Solano and Representatives Lynne DiSanto and Julie Frye-Mueller, all Rapid City Republicans.
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican candidate for governor, has endorsed the bill even though it has yet to have a committee hearing. Her statement of support accuses “some” state universities of discriminating against “conservative or Christian voices.”
“While these are places where the free expression of ideas should thrive, college campuses, including some in South Dakota, are showing a growing intolerance toward free speech,” she said in a written statement. When the Noem campaign was asked to cite examples, it emailed links to three items to the Journal — all concerning the University of South Dakota.
One was an editorial in the Volante, the student newspaper, that complained that the school's student handbook said "hate speech" and bullying were prohibited. The editorial also said the university lacked adequate "free speech zones." The editorial added, however, that both issues had been ruled upon in similar cases in federal courts. The editorial also cited a rating by the Foundation for Individual Right in Education, or FIRE, a special-interest group in Philadelphia. The second link was to FIRE's website that raised the same issues.
The third link was to an Argus Leader story reporting on the controversy over whether USD would allow the showing of the "Honor Diaries," which explores violence against women, including honor killings and forced marriages. According to the article, one screening was canceled but another was held. The Noem campaign provided no other examples of "growing intolerance" on university campuses.
Does South Dakota really need a bill that targets six colleges due to the alleged problems at one that was highlighted by an out-of-state special interest group? Are these the same lawmakers who cried foul after voters approved Initiated Measure 22, claiming out-of-state interests unfairly influenced state voters' minds?
Do we really want lawmakers micromanaging speech at state universities where there are no problems? What is the purpose of the Board of Regents? How will the heavy hand of legislative oversight help the state retain and hire quality university presidents? What's next? Approving curriculum? Reviewing resumes of job applicants?
The real question, however, is free speech really free when regulated by lawmakers? The bill demands detailed annual reports to the Joint Committee on Appropriations, which has the ultimate leverage — funding — over universities.
The legislation also seems to encourage lawsuits against the state: "Any person or student association aggrieved by a violation of the Act may bring an action against the public institution of higher education and any other person responsible for the violation and seek appropriate relief, including injunctive relief, monetary damages, reasonable attorney fees, and court costs."
This clause opens the door for anyone — Christians, hate groups and others — to sue the state's public universities.
The First Amendment already protects free speech and nothing in the Constitution prohibits an individual or organization from seeking a legal remedy if they feel that right has been denied.
This legislation isn't about free speech. It's about making a political point at the expense of taxpayers and the state's universities.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!