Revamped anti-DEI bill passes House after four-hour debate

Published 1:12 pm Friday, March 15, 2024

FRANKFORT — An updated version of Bowling Green Republican Sen. Mike Wilson’s anti-DEI bill is one step closer to becoming law.

After an hours-long committee meeting Thursday evening, Senate Bill 6 moved to the House floor Friday morning. After a near-four hour filibuster and a series of failed floor amendments by Democrats, the House voted 68-18 to pass the bill.

Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, was the sole Republican no vote, while Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty, D-Martin, was the sole Democrat yes vote.

The latest version would require Kentucky’s public colleges and universities to eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, offices and positions by July, among other wide-reaching provisions.

It adds in most of Waddy Republican Rep. Jennifer Decker’s House Bill 9, another anti-DEI bill filed this session.

Decker said the amended bill would “foster critical thinking and constructive dialogue” and allow Kentucky institutions to “return their focus to providing students with high-quality academic construction in an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all.”

Due to the significant changes, SB6 will have to return to the Senate for concurrence, a process by which they agree or disagree with the House’s amendments.

What’s in the updated bill?

Senate Bill 6 defines DEI initiatives as those that promote or provide different treatment or benefits based on a person’s religion, race, sex, color or national origin.

Under SB6, none of these attributes could be used to provide different treatment or benefits in hiring, admissions, recruitment, promotion, contracts, housing, financial assistance or scholarships.

Institutions would not be able to ask about applicants’ views on or experience with religion, race, sex, color or national origin.

The bill would prohibit institutions from using any money, staff or other resources to maintain DEI offices, officers, training or initiatives. It would also ban any promotion or justification of “discriminatory concepts” outside of academic instruction.

Discriminatory concepts are defined as those “presenting as truth, rather than as a subject for inquiry, that an existing structure, system, or relation of power, privilege, or subordination persists on the basis of oppression, colonialism, socioeconomic status, religion, race, sex, color, or national origin.”

They also include concepts that justify or promote different treatment based on religion, race, sex, color or national origin.

Institutions would have until July to eliminate pre-existing DEI initiatives, offices and positions.

Academic courses primarily concerning diversity, equity and inclusion or “discriminatory concepts” would not count toward mandatory graduation requirements. Any degree programs that require such courses would be eliminated.

SB6 also raises the threshold for bias incident investigations. An institution could not conduct an investigation unless a student’s alleged conduct rose to student-on-student harassment — behavior so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies equal access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”

Each year, the Council for Postsecondary Education would create a survey assessing intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity to be administered across Kentucky campuses.

Governing boards would also have to develop campus policies on viewpoint neutrality, banning discrimination based on political or social viewpoints. Institutions must also complete a series of reports, including several on historical employment of DEI officers.

The Attorney General would be able to sue institutions that do not comply, and individuals could file their own private lawsuits beginning in May 2025.

Committee and floor discussion

Thursday night, testimony from bill supporters and detractors was wide-ranging and often tense.

National representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, conservative think tanks, called in to share their concerns about the state of free speech on college campuses.

Drew Rosenberger of the Manhattan Institute said that DEI has targeted conservative views for “cancellation.”

“It scares students and professors into compliance lest they run beyond the latest politically incorrect frontier and have their futures threatened by liberal mobs,” Rosenberger said.

Michael Frazier, a prominent Kentucky First Amendment advocate, said campuses have problems with racism, queerphobia, harassment and discrimination, but DEI offices aren’t helping to fix them.

He argued that money allocated to DEI offices should be redirected to student resource centers, which he said serve students better. Decker agreed, and clarified that student resource centers are exempted from the bill’s provisions.

Resource centers may offer students, faculty and staff academic, health, religious, disability, community and career support. Decker said that these centers are the ones actually offering wraparound services, not DEI offices.

Bill opponents, however, believe that removing DEI officers would roll back progress.

On the floor, Rep. George Brown, Jr., D-Lexington, said data suggests that 80% of U.S. employers have DEI initiatives, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“How will banning DEI initiatives and offices prepare our students to be able to interact in a changing workforce that seems to value diversity, equity and inclusion?” Brown asked.

DEI initiatives are key to reaching Kentucky’s goal of getting 60% of its working age population to earn “a credential that matters” by 2030, said Travis Powell, Council of Postsecondary Education vice president.

Since the 2012-13 academic year, he said that retention rates have improved significantly, particularly among underrepresented minorities and low-income students.

It’s difficult to get people in these populations into the workforce pipeline, and Powell worries that SB6 would limit further progress. DEI isn’t about any specific ideology or adherence to any side of the political spectrum, he said.

“It is simply finding folks from different backgrounds, marginalized backgrounds or any background they might be from and helping them to be more successful in their college pursuits,” Powell said.

On the floor, Rep. Lindsey Burke, D-Lexington, asked Decker whether social work graduate programs that consider the historical impact of colonialism and oppression would be eliminated under this bill.

Decker said that it did not.

“This bill does not ban any discussion of any topic,” she said. “It encourages discussion. It discourages items being raised without discussion, with a lens of the professor.”

However, several Democrats questioned which concepts would be unable to be presented as fact, but instead be open to debate.

One mentioned the concept that the Earth is round, which some people reject. Others used redlining and the exclusion of African American from the GI bill as examples of events whose cause would have to remain open for debate, although historical and systemic discrimination is the clear culprit.  

“While I think it is phenomenal for students and people to engage in a healthy debate if they’re interested in truly learning and listening to the other side, at the end of the day, there are just some things that are factual,” said Rep. Sarah Stalker, D-Louisville.

“And I think what’s creating so much confusion and tension for people in this room is it’s not clear when professors can state fact and that’s not going to be misconstrued as something that is labeled as divisive.”