Board of Regents Free Speech Hearing

During the hearings for HB1073 and SB198 this last legislative session, it was mentioned several times that the policy fixes being discussed should be taken care of at a more local level. Namely, the Board of Regents policies and several of the South Dakota University policies. Thursday was the first significant step towards that goal. Near the end of the committee hearing on SB198 Senator Soholt explained that she would be voting against the bill, but that the Board of Regents needed to take a serious look at the policies and practices of our universities. Senator Bolin made similar remarks, explaining that in South Dakota we are in the habit of letting local control work the problems out.

The free-speech hearing was added into a two-day board meeting by the Regents on the campus of South Dakota State University. They gave opportunity for testimony from University faculty, students as well as national experts. The overall flavor of the hearing: let’s tweak what we have and get it right. The Chicago Statement was mentioned by several of those giving testimony, as well as several board members as a good standard to glean from. One concept outlined in the statement that was discussed throughout the hearing is that the proper response to a message someone deems offensive or even abhorrent is more speech, not censorship.

Blake Meadows with Alliance Defending Freedom outlined 5 common miss-steps they have seen by universities: Misunderstanding who qualifies as a State actor, granting too much power to administrators, vague or unconstitutional policies, speech zones and limiting equal access or expressive association. Tyler Coward with The F.I.R.E. recommended ensuring that all university harassment policies are in line with Davis v. Monroe.

A few other key points made during the hearing:

-Many messages are controversial, but the right to express them must be protected if we value free-speech.

-Controversial speakers and events may result in the need for significant security costs. It was expressed that charging the student groups or the speaker an extra security fee because of this fact may be a barrier to that groups right to present their message.

-Universities in South Dakota aren’t significantly hampering free speech on their campuses, but they are modifying the definition of it and have policies that may prove unconstitutional.

-It is not the role of a University to shield students from views or messages.

-Security fees should be charged based off a viewpoint-neutral standard, and allowing campus and local police the ability to act will often times reduce the potential for a problem.

-Actions that cause damage are illegal, but words, no matter how offensive, are not actions.

-We should not wait until we have a significant event that outlines problematic policies, we should fix them beforehand.

-Including an explanation of free-speech rights in student orientation may be a low-cost way to increase understanding on the issue.

The next step is for the Board to examine their policies and compile possible fixes. They expressed a desire to send the verbiage changes to the major stakeholders for input/advice before they finalize the new policies.