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Anti-DEI bill passes Ky. House committee with broad restrictions

GOP Rep. Jennifer Decker, of Waddy, presents a bill on the House floor Friday, March 8, 2024.
LRC Public Information
GOP Rep. Jennifer Decker, of Waddy, presents a bill on the House floor Friday, March 8, 2024.

Senate Bill 6 advanced in the state House Thursday with new broad-reaching bans on funding for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Students were largely absent from Thursday’s House committee debate over the future of DEI initiatives at public colleges.

The legislation would ban any use of resources on DEI offices or officers, DEI training, DEI initiatives, or the promotion of so-called discriminatory concepts. It would apply at public colleges across Kentucky.

University of Louisville student Jennifer Snelling, who spoke as a private citizen, was among the students who had hoped to attend, but said she couldn’t because of the speed with which lawmakers have pushed the bill through the process.

“Unfortunately with such short notice and a lack of transparency, the legislature has achieved its goal of squashing opposing demonstrations before they have a chance to happen,” said Snelling, who is a member of UofL Students for DEI in Education.

The bill was heard in a specially-called meeting, announced 24 hours prior. It passed Thursday evening on party lines, with three Democrats voting “no.” It’s already received two readings on the House floor, meaning it could be voted on as soon as tomorrow while students are still on spring break.

Senate Bill 6 is part of a growing wave of conservative legislation across the country condemning diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as divisive and discriminatory against right-wing faculty and students.

DEI is defined in the bill as any policy that promotes or provides “differential treatment or benefits” on the basis of religion, race, sex, etc. That applies broadly to practices around employment and admission, or conferences and presentations.

The bill would ban all scholarships that provide preferential treatment based on race, sex, etc. and affinity housing, where students who may share a religion, race or national identity. Public colleges could not request a statement on a person’s experience or views on religion, race, sex, etc. when considering applicants for admission or employment or anything else.

Investigations of bias would also be limited to only those that investigate student-on-student harassment or are required under law and authorized by the college’s general counsel.

Under the bill, the Council of Postsecondary Education, which advises the legislature and provides guidance for institutions of higher education, can't approve new degrees that include requirements for a course or training dedicated to DEI. It also requires all existing programs be eliminated.

Both sides of the argument said they were fighting for free speech and debate.

Republican Rep. Jennifer Decker from Waddy, who is carrying the bill in the House, said she wants to open discourse on campuses.

“Teachers can teach anything they want on any topic; we hope they will,” Decker said. “But they have to allow open and honest debate in the class. And so when the Council of Postsecondary Education reviews programs, they are to look at whether the classes are offered as topics of debate and a free inquiry of discussions.”

The original sponsor of SB6, GOP Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green, was not present at the hearing. The version that lawmakers heard in committee more closely resembled a different bill, House Bill 9, which Decker sponsored but has not moved in the legislative process.

Opponents of the bill say free and open discourse is only possible when diversity and inclusion is actively pursued on campuses. One student who was able to make it to the hearing was James Ritchie, a PhD student at UofL who also teaches an introductory film studies course.

“As I teach film studies, there are many many controversial, divisive or otherwise unpleasant topics that come up in the history of film, but in order to teach the subject adequately, to the best possible academic rigor, it is necessary for me to address these topics,” Ritchie said. “I am all for free intellectual debate. That is exactly why I hope you will vote no on this bill.”

Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski from Louisville said she believed the bill was not based on Kentucky issues, pointing to two of the speakers who supported it, including members of the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute — both national conservative think tanks.

“This isn't a Kentucky based initiative and having Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute as guest speakers just drove that home to me,” Bojanowski said.

Travis Powell, vice president at the Council of Postsecondary Education, argued for a different definition of DEI, one that focuses on helping all students from marginalized backgrounds achieve academic success, when he spoke against the bill. Powell said focusing on diversity is the only way to get more students through a postsecondary education.

“We have to have all the tools in the tool bag in order to help all our students be successful and Kentucky,” Powell said. “It talks about differential treatment of students based on race, sex, national origin, that sort of thing. And we treat students differently on those bases, because they are different on those bases.”

Bill proponent Decker said the bill would not affect funding for centers like the Martin Luther King Center at the University of Kentucky or the LGBT Center at University of Louisville. Decker said she had visited similar student resource centers, and liked what she saw.

“I saw the safe spaces they provide for students just if they feel uncomfortable on campus, they can come in there, and there's spaces where they can sleep, they can eat, they can study,” Decker said.

The Kentucky attorney general would be allowed to sue public colleges if they don’t comply with the bill. It allows a private right of action, meaning any student, parent of a student, employee or applicant would be allowed to sue the public college if they believe it is violating any section of the bill.

Opponents argued it would encourage a wave of lawsuits based on the group wording of some definitions and could create a chilling effect at institutions attempting to avoid civil action.

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-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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