SD Senate passes ban on ‘divisive’ university race trainings

March 7, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Republicans in the South Dakota Senate on Monday passed a proposal from Gov. Kristi Noem to ban public universities from using training and orientation material that compels people to feel “discomfort” based on their race.

The bill’s passage on a 27-8 vote was its final major hurdle in the Legislature, showing broad support from Republicans though some voiced opposition to how it could curtail free speech rights on college campuses. The House has already passed the bill, but because senators made minor changes, the two chambers will have to agree on its final language.

Noem has billed the proposal as a repudiation of so-called “critical race theory” and a way to ensure “students are not taught that they are responsible for (the) different actions of our ancestors.”

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The governor has vilified critical race theory in the last year, following a political rallying cry on the right against the academic framework, which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions.

The bill’s actual text makes no mention of critical race theory. It lays out seven “divisive concepts” and bans universities from making students or faculty members adhere to them or promoting them in required trainings.

The “divisive concepts” listed in the bill include that individuals are “inherently responsible” for historical actions or “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account” of their race.

The proposal drew sharp criticism that it would put a chill on academic freedom and sanitize the most painful facts of U.S. history. Leaders of South Dakota’s minority communities, from Oglala Sioux Tribe President Kevin Killer to Julian Beaudion, the director of the South Dakota African American History Museum, spoke against the bill last week.

“Our country needs to acknowledge and reckon with its history of systemic racism — this includes being able to teach and talk about these concepts in our schools,” Jett Jonelis, ACLU of South Dakota advocacy manager, said in a statement, adding that the bill encroaches on “a professor’s right to make teaching choices without government interference.”

The bill carves out an exception for academic courses in universities, which the governor has insisted allows painful classroom discussions.

The Board of Regents has supported the bill, and its lobbyist has testified that it would not change how universities are already operating.

But several lawmakers decried the bill as a step towards authoritarianism.

“What separates us from Russia, from China, from any of these places, our enemies,” said Republican Sen. V.J. Smith. “We have the freedom of speech.”

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Republican Sen. Jessica Castleberry, an ally of the governor who presented the proposal on the Senate floor, insisted the bill would not infringe on free speech and argued it strengthened those rights because it prevented anyone from being compelled to adopt certain concepts.

“They can take Intro to Critical Race Theory. They can have spirited debates,” she said. “This preserves institutional neutrality by preventing critical race theory and divisive concepts from being adopted at the institutional level.”

A GOP-controlled Senate committee last week rejected a companion bill Noem brought that would have banned K-12 public schools from teaching the “divisive concepts.” Allies of the governor were looking for ways to resurrect that proposal Monday.

But some Republicans have shown reservations about how far to push government policing of classrooms and campuses.

“I cannot support the idea that state government should create a list of ideas, write them into statute, and call them divisive,” said Republican Sen. David Wheeler said during the Senate debate. “It’s incredibly difficult to legislate effectively on broad concepts.”