Identity Suppression: South Dakota’s Policy Backlash

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A recent policy shift in South Dakota’s public universities has ignited controversy, as faculty members are now prohibited from including their preferred gender pronouns and tribal affiliations in official correspondence. 

The policy, adopted by the South Dakota Board of Regents in December, mandates the removal of such identifiers from email signature blocks, citing branding and communications uniformity. However, the change follows Gov. Kriti Noem’s call to curb “liberal ideologies” on campuses, underscoring broader conservative efforts nationwide to restrict DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives. 

Several faculty members at the University of South Dakota, including Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and John Little — who have historically included their pronouns and tribal affiliations in their email signatures — have received written warning urging compliance with the new policy at the threat of suspension or termination. 

“I was told that I had 5 days to remove my tribal affiliation and pronouns,” Little said in an email to The Associated Press. “I believe the exact wording was that I had ‘5 days to correct the behavior.’ If my tribal affiliation and pronouns were not removed after the 5 days, then administrators would meet and make a decision whether I would be suspended (with or without pay) and/or immediately terminated.”

Following complaints against the policy from faculty and students, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of South Dakota is considering actions to rectify what it views as a suppression of free speech.

“Maybe their intent was to suppress pronoun usage in email signatures, but as is often the case with any limitation or suppression of free speech, there’s always unintended consequences,” Samantha Chapman, an advocacy manager for the ACLU South Dakota, told CBS News. “There is also a component here of double erasure. There are plenty of queer Indigenous folks in South Dakota.”

Critics argue that the policy sets a dangerous precedent, potentially paving the way for further restrictions on free expression within academic settings. Paulette Grandberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, views it as a testing ground for discriminatory laws.

“It is a steady progression,” Russell told CBS News. “This comes in the form of communications and branding standards. Is that going to be the next frontier in sanitizing the realities of our differences?”