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University investigates law school for banning ‘Hawaiian Day’ as culturally insensitive
leis hula


‘Administrative censorship is not something USD condones’

The University of South Dakota’s law school thought it was preventing “culturally insensitive” practices when it ordered the student government to change the theme of a “Hawaiian Day” event and ditch the leis.

Now it’s under investigation for legally insensitive actions.

The Argus Leader reports that the university administration is looking into the law school’s claim that the Hawaiian Day theme violates its inclusiveness policy. It was initiated by President Sheila Gestring:

The investigation will determine whether those actions violated Board of Regents policies, specifically related to the regents’ commitment to freedom of expression.

The policy, quoted in part in the release, notes that the university has a “fundamental commitment to the principle that viewpoints may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the institution’s community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.”

The release says policy violations are a serious matter, and the investigation into whether a violation occurred will be “thorough and swift.”

“Administrative censorship of student speech and expression is a serious matter and not something USD condones,” the release said, “without compelling justification consistent with Board policy, such as a genuine threat.”

MORE: Regents impose free-speech rules on South Dakota schools

The Board of Regents cheered the investigation, according to the Argus Leader Monday.

President Kevin Schieffer said in a release that the board “has made it very clear in policy that neither professors nor administrators can block or unduly interfere with free speech simply because some might find it offensive”:

While it is important to conduct a careful investigation to ensure we understand all of the facts, it is also important to send a strong and prompt message that our freedom of expression policies will be enforced on the campuses. President Gestring has done that. We look forward to a full accounting of this case based on a record of factual findings rather than unsubstantiated reports.

General Counsel Nathan Lukkes also sent a memo to university presidents over the weekend that said they are not allowed to inhibit speech that some might find “upsetting, offensive, or even emotionally disturbing.”

Rep. Bob McDermott, a member of the Hawaiian state legislature, wrote a letter to the editor in The Volante blasting the decision to change the theme of the party.

“Someone in South Dakota has their head stuck in a snowbank,” he wrote. “The lei is a symbol of our Aloha spirit in Hawaii, inclusive and welcoming. One individual’s objection to its use at a festive event is both patronizing and an insult to our island tradition. It is also a demonstration of ignorance about the cultural significance of the lei.”

“[The lei] is part of who we are in Hawaii and we are happy to share it,” he wrote.

The Board of Regents revised its policies in December under pressure from state lawmakers, who are trying to codify campus free-speech protections in state law.

Though the Senate rejected a bill on the subject Wednesday that had been approved by the House, “some lawmakers were contemplating efforts to revive the bill” following the Hawaiian Day dispute, according to the Argus Leader. That bill would also mandate “intellectual diversity among faculty and staff.”

Read the articles.

This article has been updated with comments from Rep. Bob McDermott’s Letter to the Editor. 

MORE: ‘Hawaiian Day’ party deemed offensive, leis banned

IMAGE: Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock


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