PIERRE, S.D. -- An annual report documenting alleged violations of free speech on public university campuses across South Dakota turned up only a single complaint, a grievance over "Hobo Days" as the name of South Dakota State University's homecoming celebration, according to the state's Board of Regents.
Nathan Lukkes, the Board of Regents' counsel, presented the findings to the interim Government Operations and Audit committee in Pierre on Monday, Jan. 11, as legislators questioned the effectiveness of the state-mandated report.
Rep. Sue Peterson, a Sioux Falls Republican, asked if the report amounted to an "administrative overburden" for the South Dakota Board of Regents.
"We are more than happy to do what we need to do," responded Lukkes. "From my vantage point . . . how useful or beneficial is this report for the Legislature?"
The 2020 "Intellectual Diversity" report was the second publication of such a document. In 2019, South Dakota legislators enacted House Bill 1087, which required an annual report describing occurrences that "impeded intellectual diversity" and actions schools took "to promote and ensure intellectual diversity."
Last year's report turned up seven alleged "occurrences." This year's lone complaint was filed at SDSU and was a request to change "Hobo Days" to a "Jackrabbit" celebration. The board's report said the charge is not under investigation "as this is not a violation of First Amendment/Intellectual Diversity."
"It continues to surprise me the lack of complaints we get," said Lukkes.
Lukkes touted the campus' ability to navigate a combustive 2020, a year of political debate and social unrest, by itself.
He also noted that a survey of over 3,500 students across the six public universities found that only 7% of students "felt faculty did not respect their free speech rights."
Outgoing House Speaker Steve Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, said he found the report "useful."
"We're allocating an awful lot of money (to the board) to carry out a mission, and we want to know what's going on," said Haugaard.
Rep. Chris Kaar, a Sioux Falls Republican, also said he found the report valuable.
"Without the report then we're just stuck with what we're hearing from others," said Kaar. "And it creates speculation about what's happening and what's being presented at the campuses."
While academia has long been accused of a liberal bias going back even before the anti-war demonstrations in the 1960s, the battle over free speech on college campuses has reached its zenith under the Trump administration.
In March 2019, President Trump threatened to withhold federal funding for colleges "hostile to free speech," a move largely seen as appeasing conservative activists as the First Amendment already bars free speech violations.
In conservative South Dakota, charges of entrenched liberal bias in colleges have been largely anecdotal and sometimes fleeting. In February 2019, a law school student association objected to a fellow student's request to change an informal party from "Hawaiian Day" to "Beach Day" in order to avoid stigmatizing Indigenous peoples. That dispute -- and ensuing social media attention -- prompted an investigation ordered by USD President Sheila Gestring.
The state law that authorized the annual report was passed by the Legislature in March 2019 and signed by Gov. Kristi Noem the next month.
In addition to identifying potential free speech impediments, state law also requires the board of regents to compile a report documenting the hundreds of speakers spanning political and academic categories who spoke on campus.
Black Hills State University reported, for example, on Nov. 6, 2019, the College Democrats chapter hosted a Planned Parenthood information table in the student union while that same night a pro-life student group held a screening of "Unplanned," an anti-abortion film.
The University of South Dakota reported that last January political science professors held a discussion on Congress' impeachment proceedings against Trump, as well as an appearance by an Icelandic-American pianist.