USD President Addresses Recent Controversy Over “Hawaii Day” With Legislators On Government Operations And Audit Committee

(WNAX) –Misperceptions about free speech policy and cultural sensitivities led to complaints and concerns about a “Hawaii Day” themed party at the Law School at the University of South Dakota.  USD President Sheila Gestring says the Student Bar Association (SBA) asked for approval to hold the event….

“The USD Law Administration actually approved the SBA request to sponsor and fund a ‘Hawaii Day’ party.  The Law Administrators help SBA with signage and notification of the event.  The Law Administration event created flyers with ‘Hawaii Day’ as the prominent copy on that flyer.  There was no Law School Administration opposition to the name or any other aspect of the event funding request.”

Gestring, appearing before the legislatures Government Operations & Audit Committee, says concerns were raised about possible violations of University policy…

“Once the event was announced, a student contacted the SBA leadership with concerns about the name and leis as possibly being culturally insensitive to indigenous populations, arguing that it was some how a vout violation of our inclusive excellence policy.  The SBA leadership took no position on that policy argument.  But they had no attachment to the name of the party and no desire to enter into debate or deal with controversy over something they didn’t feel strongly about.”

Gestring says an email reply to a request for advice was poorly written…

“SBA was not trying to engage in speech and the Law School Administrators did not restrict it.  A mistake was made, however in a rush to respond to an over-stressed student anxious for help.  We are dealing with that in another process.  As we implement the new BOR speech policy and now new law, we will continue education efforts for both faculty and staff as well as students.”

Gestring, along with a University lawyer, told lawmakers they will continue to educate students about free speech rights and responsibilities. Legislators took no action on the report.