Regents approve 'minors on campus' policy for South Dakota universities
"They can probably take it one step further and ask should this even be allowed on our campus?" a lawmaker who brought a bill responding to an "all-ages" drag show at SDSU last year.
PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Board of Regents on May 9 voted unanimously to approve a rule change updating the board’s policies surrounding minors on college campuses in the state, completing a six-month arc that stemmed from a student-led drag show at South Dakota State University last year.
"Our campuses serve as a hub for community events, and we prioritize making visitors feel welcome when attending university programs or activities hosted by external organizations on campus. At the same time, we recognized the need to take measures to ensure the safety of minors who visit South Dakota's public universities,” Board of Regents President Tim Rave wrote in a statement to Forum News Service. “With this policy in place, we hope our campuses will continue being a safe and enjoyable environment for all guests."
The policy requires any minor who enters university facilities to be accompanied and supervised by an approved chaperone. It also places more stringent oversight on youth programs, including better background checks for authorized adults.
The policy makes clear that any university program open to minors may not feature “specific sexual activities,” “obscene conduct” or any material “meeting the definition of harmful to minors,” standards that are defined in state law.
Programming that doesn’t rise to the level of legally obscene but does “include nudity, sexual situations, violence or other explicit content” must feature a “content descriptor” in order to allow minors to attend.
These rules apply to “university-sponsored” events no matter their location, as well as “externally sponsored” events that use university facilities.
Samantha Chapman, the advocacy manager at the South Dakota ACLU, said the majority of the policy was “common sense safety for minors,” but did say the organization would keep a close eye on how individual campuses make decisions to restrict minor attendance and require content warnings.
“The ACLU of South Dakota works with several student-led organizations on university campuses across the state, and we will be keeping a close eye to ensure this policy is applied fairly, and that the Board of Regents and universities continue to support the First Amendment rights of all students and faculty,” she said.
Following a drag show last November sponsored by the SDSU Gender and Sexualities Alliance student group, several conservative activists and lawmakers made clear their opposition to the “all-ages” label the event was given on the university’s website and implored the Board of Regents to take steps to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
After a December meeting where board members instructed staff to “develop a policy to safeguard minors,” the board approved the first reading of the policy in March; the changes from that first reading were marked in red as the policy was officially approved on Tuesday.
One line that was scrapped would have kept minors from attending an event featuring content that is “patently offensive to prevailing community standards,” a somewhat nebulous standard that could have led to different enforcement on different campuses under the board’s direction.
At the initial reading, some board members made clear their desire to balance protecting minors with making clear that people of all ages are encouraged to enjoy the state’s campuses.
“I understand why we're doing this and I support it,” Joan Wink, a now-former regent whose term ended in April 2023, said at the board’s March meeting. “What we want is kids on our campuses running and playing and feeling free. We want them there.”
A spokesperson for the board said that, over the past two months, board staff reviewed the policy with Gov. Kristi Noem's office and various other stakeholder groups, including the board’s member universities.
The finalization of the rule change from the board comes after a legislative session that saw the failure of two proposals limiting “purely sexual content” in the state’s education system and preventing minors from attending “obscene” programming.
Rep. Chris Karr, of Sioux Falls, who backed one of these bills, said the policy update is a “step in the right direction,” but hoped the board would be “more proactive” going forward.
“Last year, when we talked, the board didn't think that they could intervene and say what could be allowed on campus or what minors could be allowed at,” Karr said. “So if they're saying they can make a decision about whether or not a minor can be allowed at an event, then they can probably take it one step further and ask should this even be allowed on our campus?”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.