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Ky. Senate passes bill to limit DEI in higher education in the name of free speech

Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, R-Smithfield, answers questions about a bill related to adult-oriented businesses during a press conference Tuesday.
LRC Public Information
Republican Sen. Lindsey Tichenor of Smithfield equated DEI initiatives with communist theory on the Senate floor Tuesday Feb. 13, 2024.

A bill designed to limit diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in Kentucky public colleges and universities passed the state Senate on Tuesday.

From the floor of the Kentucky Senate, Republican lawmakers joined the chorus of conservatives across the country decrying nationwide diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as divisive and discriminatory against right-wing faculty and students.

Senate Bill 6’s sponsor says the bill was directly inspired by a similar Tennessee law. But similar and occasionally more expansive efforts have been introduced in at least 24 other states, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lawmakers on the House floor Tuesday said DEI has gone too far in higher education. They said the concepts damage the country’s unity, and impinge on free speech on campuses. One GOP lawmaker compared DEI efforts to communism.

“The ideals of DEI are not much different than the ideals of Karl Marx in his fight for economic equality… an equal distribution of capital for equal outcomes,” said Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, a Republican from Smithfield. “We're seeing dividing people and separating people… which is so opposite of what the intent of DEI is.”

Opponents of the legislation implored lawmakers to consider the chilling effect the legislation would have on higher education institutions and efforts to accurately teach U.S. history.

“We today now want to go backwards and say … that we want a university system that really chills and imperils different races, people of different genders, people with different languages,” said Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas of Lexington.

Under SB6, Kentucky’s public colleges and universities couldn’t ask students or staff to endorse certain concepts that the bill describes as “discriminatory.” State senators approved the measure on a 26-6 vote. It now moves to the House for consideration.

These are a few examples of the concepts that the bill identifies, many of which bare a similarity to former president Donald Trump’s 2020 ban on certain DEI efforts in federal agencies:

  • “Promotes division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people”
  • “All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;
  • “The Commonwealth of Kentucky or the United States of America is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist”
  • “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form  of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex”
  • “A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress another race or sex”

SB6 also says that public colleges can’t ask an applicant, whether for employment or admission, to describe their attitude or previous actions in support or opposition of specific ideologies or principles.

It does not eliminate DEI offices at public colleges, but it does require that at least 50% of their duties must focus on supporting students who have received a federal Pell grant, which are designated for low-income students.

The bill would also effectively ban the use of DEI statements. Colleges use these statement to give faculty the opportunity to describe the work they do to support historically underrepresented groups, including racial minorities, veterans, impoverished students, and more.

In a committee hearing on SB6 last week, bill sponsor Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green brought forward a student and a faculty member who felt they had been forced to ascribe to progressive ideology in order to gain employment opportunities and fit in.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Wilson reiterated that point saying he filed the bill on behalf of students whose First Amendment rights are being violated.

“There is much that we can do to promote academic success for underrepresented minorities without promoting divisive academic theories,” Wilson said.

After a failed attempt to amend the legislation, Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal, the Senate minority floor leader from Louisville, said racism and anti-Black bias is far from eliminated from American society and certainly not schools. He cited a Federal Bureau of Investigations report that found hate crimes committed in educational settings were on the rise, and the majority are committed against Black people.

Neal said the bill does not reflect his experiences within higher education.

“Those who matriculate in our institutions of higher education, they can handle [tough conversations],” Neal said. “Nobody’s going to be perfect. Somebody’s going to step outside the boundary and we can pick out an exception. And then we can extrapolate to make our point as if that’s the reality. I don’t buy that.”

Sen. Cassie Chamber Armstrong, a Louisville Democrat and a professor at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law, said she is worried the language of the bill would hurt her ability to fully teach history. She pointed specifically to one of the concepts forbidden under the legislation: “Ascribes character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex.”

“I’m worried about… vague concepts within the bill and the unintended consequences they will create,” Armstrong said.

She listed a number of moments in recent U.S. history in which certain privileges were granted to one race or sex and not another by law, and questioned whether teaching those would be prohibited by SB6.

The legislation does not explicitly ban instruction, per se. However, it says that public colleges cannot require a course that presents any “discriminatory” concepts as fact or advocates for any individual to support one of them.

Democratic Sen. Robin Webb from Grayson said she was deeply concerned by the lack of definitions and clarity in the legislation that would likely have a chilling effect and would “certainly likely end in litigation.”

“I’m looking at this in a historical context,” Webb said. “You’ve got to go back to the root of how we got here and that was to protect underrepresented individuals. And that’s what I want to continue to do.”

When she voted against the bill, Webb said she believed the bill would limit academic freedom and hurt discourse within higher education.

A Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky survey released Tuesday found that 71% of Kentucky voters said they believe businesses and institutions should be “allowed to make decisions regarding their own diversity, equity and inclusion education and training programs without government interference.”

In support of the bill, Tichenor compared several brutal communist regimes to college efforts to promote inclusivity and fairness across diverse groups of students.

Tichenor mentioned an email from a student who urged her to vote against the bill, saying that he had benefited from privilege himself. Tichenor said the student’s plea further hardened her resolve to vote “yes” on the bill.

“Are we creating kids who won’t know how to function?” Tichenor asked, in reference to a post on the website formerly known as Twitter.

Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler of Pikeville said he acknowledges that American society has done bad things, but that the legislation strikes more balance within DEI.

“We must strive to move forward as a unified nation. I believe some of the vitriol that occurs on the campuses, some of the topics, have really begun to divide us more than unite us,” Wheeler said as he cast his “yes” vote.

The bill also requires all new student orientations to have free-speech materials, including a copy of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, resources on the importance of viewpoint diversity, and university policies in support of free speech.

A previous version of the bill allowed private individuals to sue colleges for up to $100,000 for running afoul of SB 6. A committee substitute adopted before the vote would allow the Kentucky attorney general to investigate complaints and force colleges to comply.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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