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SD bill restricting ‘divisive concepts’ in higher ed heads to Noem’s desk

Story at a glance

  • A South Dakota bill to restrict “divisive concepts” at state colleges and universities was passed by the state Senate Monday and now heads to the governor for a signature or a veto.
  • It’s expected that Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who helped draft the legislation in December, will sign the bill into law.
  • Groups like the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign have accused the bill of infringing on the First Amendment rights of professors in the state, as well as being an obvious attempt to erase marginalized groups from history books.

As the nation watched Florida’s legislature pass the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, state senators in South Dakota sent legislation limiting the promotion of “divisive concepts” in schools to the governor’s desk with markedly less fanfare.

The bill passed Monday in South Dakota’s Republican-controlled Senate, 27-8. Should it be signed into law by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem — who helped draft the bill in December — “divisive concepts” related to race, gender and sex would be heavily restricted at state colleges and universities.

Similar to others like it, South Dakota’s House Bill 1012 targets critical race theory, which addresses systemic racism in the U.S., alleging it will widen racial divisions and make students feel “guilt” or “discomfort” on account of their race.

Under the bill, colleges and universities would not be restricted in the courses they are allowed to offer and professors may still instruct students on any subject matter, but “forced” or “compelled” speech in college orientations or trainings would be prevented.

Republican state Sen. Jessica Castleberry, who presented the proposal on the Senate floor, argued Monday that the legislation would strengthen free speech rights by preventing educators or students from being compelled to adopt certain concepts, The Associated Press reported.


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“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.”

In a statement this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Dakota said the bill encroaches on the First Amendment rights of educators and “creates more questions than answers.”

“It opens the door for a wide range of interpretations that could be used to chill free speech and academic freedom, discouraging open and honest discussions about systemic racism in classrooms and in higher education communities,” ACLU of South Dakota advocacy manager Jett Jonelis said. “That House Bill 1012 passed shows the very need for the types of discussion our government is trying to prohibit.”

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in a statement echoed that concern, arguing that the bill forces self-censorship and accusing it of being an obvious effort to silence “oppressed voices in and outside of the classroom.”

“Students should be taught an honest and accurate history of our nation, including the good and the bad,” HRC state legislative director and senior counsel Cathryn Oakley said. “Young adults deserve an education that enables them to learn from the mistakes of our country’s past to help create a better future.”

“By teaching young adults the full scope of reality for LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people, both historically and today, we can help build a fully realized society where everyone can take pride in their individual identities,” she said.


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