(NEW YORK) – Several state lawmakers in South Dakota last week objected to a professional drag show at South Dakota State University (SDSU) that was advertised as “kid-friendly,” claiming that it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money. In a letter to SDSU leaders, Rep.  Chris Karr, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, posed a series of concerns “to prevent problematic events from occurring” on the campus in the future, including asking how the Board of Regents and Central Office could “intervene when a State university hosts an event on its campus that is inappropriate.”  SDSU’s president released a statement in response, clarifying that the event was sponsored by the student group Gender and Sexualities Alliance, not the university, and that student groups are allowed to host events of their choosing. The event was ultimately held without incident.

“It is not the place of elected officials to pick and choose what events and whose expression is allowable on campus, meddling in students’ First Amendment rights,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America. “We are glad to see that this event went forward, and that SDSU President Barry Dunn defended the rights of students to organize public events in public campus spaces. But lawmakers’ efforts to pressure university leaders on Twitter or use their committee positions to intimidate SDSU leaders are alarming, especially so amidst a growing and sometimes violent movement to censor and erase LGBTQ+ people and stories nationwide.

“Student groups across the political spectrum have the right to express themselves and host events on campus accordingly,” Friedman stated. “We should all be concerned when government officials call to re-evaluate how funding is apportioned to events they disagree with ideologically, in direct contravention to the principles of free expression and open exchange that should pervade campus life. This inquiry into the University’s event policies is a worrying effort at intimidation, censorship and ideological control.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057