A bill introduced in Pierre, House Bill 1073, which aimed to protect free speech on college campuses in South Dakota, has failed in committee. I am deeply disappointed in the South Dakota State Legislature, as well as our own SGA, and their vote to oppose House Bill 1073. While I understand their concerns, I find them largely unwarranted.
This bill, if passed, would have eliminated free speech zones on all public campuses. Now, any demonstration or expression would still have been limited. The bill allowed prohibition of activities that disrupt the normal functioning of the institution. For example, a protest could not go barging into a classroom or meeting.
Some critics, including SGA president Teagan McNary, say this bill was redundant, and that the South Dakota Board of Regents do a good job protecting free speech. That may be true. But then what’s the concern?
There is no such thing as “too” much protection for free speech. Of course, we have the first amendment, but that does not mean attempts will be made to restrict speech. We make laws protecting voting rights, even though voting for all groups is already enshrined in the Constitution. So why not free speech?
Some have expressed concerns about abuse, like students protesting LGBTQ+ groups or individuals. I find these concerns largely unwarranted. Last year when students protested President Donald Trump’s election, was there retaliation? No. Are there protests on campus in general? No.
Even if there were protesters, they wouldn’t have been able to threaten or abuse students. The bill would still have prohibited such threats. If anything, this bill would have allow activist groups, including LGBTQ+ groups, to better express their concerns and worries.
President McNary and SGA might find this law concerning, but not all feel this way. Former chair of the political science department, Dr. William Richardson, testified in Pierre in support of the bill.
In a Washington Free Beacon article, Richardson said, “the free and open discussion of ideas—however disagreeable or disruptive we might find some of them to be—is at the very essence” of any educational institution.
It may be true that USD has improved its policies and recently updated them. If so, fantastic it’s indeed a step in the right direction.
Yet, even if the policy is updated, the bill was still a good one, in intention at least. While I may have had some concerns about the bill regarding legal action against the university, I find those concerns to be minimal and inconsequential. The bill would have allowed students or others who believe their rights to free speech have been violated to sue in state court. But we can already sue in federal court, so expanding it to the state level would not have open up new doors of attack, so to speak.
To those who say there isn’t a problem and this law is redundant, I say, let’s keep it that way- let’s make sure that free speech isn’t suppressed. I would much rather have this law, and not need it, than need it and not have it. I can recall visiting a campus in Ohio where the word “victim” was outright banned. Students and faculty who used it would face repercussions. We are never more than a few bad policies away from outright suppression.
I will be the first to confess that, as an empirical matter, there have very few if any instances of free speech suppression here at USD. Hopefully the policies have changed for the better. Either way, House Bill 1073 should have passed, with some small changes perhaps, but passed nonetheless. It is better to be sure, and make sure free speech is thoroughly protected, than wait for an incident to occur, and be sorry about it.