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A Win for Free Speech in South Dakota

Congratulations to our colleagues in South Dakota for their hard work in defeating their state's “intellectual diversity” bill, a variant of legislation being introduced around the country to curtail the academic freedom of faculty and students. Members of NEA's higher education affiliate in South Dakota, the Council of Higher Education (COHE), lobbied their legislators and worked with South Dakota Education Association leadership to activate K-12 members and retirees to join the cause. —Kathy Sproles

The hallmark of a good legislature is to pass laws that are deemed needed for its citizens. The hallmark of a poor legislature is to pass laws that are not needed and serve to further an outside agenda. In South Dakota recently, the Legislature flirted with the later.

South Dakota House Bill 1222, named the “Intellectual Diversity” bill, proposed requiring public universities to annually report on intellectual diversity. Intellectual diversity was defined as “a foundation of a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, and other perspectives.”

Passage of HB 1222, in addition to curtailing the traditional intellectual freedom on the state's college campuses, could have caused the creation of institutional ombudsman positions to protect this fledging intellectual diversity. Conceivably, university regents would have had to employ six ombudsmen, one for each campus, at a time the Regents are struggling to replace existing administrators and instructional faculty. These struggles occur because the salaries we offer are so low.

According to Board of Regents Executive Director Tad Perry, there have been no reports of political bias being a problem on any campus. Perry said if you look at a recent list of campus speakers, “you'd have to look pretty hard to find a more balanced list.” Furthermore, if there were a charge of ideological bias on any of our campuses, the Board of Regents already has an established grievance procedure for resolving that issue.

Actually, little old South Dakota was being used on this whole issue. National proponents of intellectual diversity are salivating at this very moment, hoping various state legislatures will pass their bills. South Dakota legislators seemed to have had equal need to pass this bill, whether or not the state actually needed it.

Fortunately, with the help of a strong grass roots effort, HB 1222 was successfully defeated. The effort succeeded largely due to cooperation between the Council of Higher Education, the bargaining agent for higher education faculty in South Dakota, the university system's Board of Regents, and the South Dakota Education Association (SDEA/NEA).

COHE President Ron Utecht and Anne Plooster, SDEA/NEA General Counsel delivered direct testimony to the legislature by. Utecht also cited the hard work of COHE members through their contact with state legislators as a major factor in COHE's success.