University changes 'Hawaiian Day' party theme to 'Beach Day' over cultural insensitivity concerns

The USD <span>Student Bar Association planned to hand out leis at its “Hawaiian Day” party.</span> (Photo: Getty)
The USD Student Bar Association planned to hand out leis at its “Hawaiian Day” party. (Photo: Getty)

University of South Dakota (USD) student organization changed the theme of an upcoming party from “Hawaiian Day” to “Beach Day” after law school administrators advised the group that its original theme was culturally insensitive. Now, the school is investigating whether those administrators violated the students’ right to free speech.

Although the USD School of Law’s Student Bar Association told its members to still wear floral shirts to the party, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports that law school administrators told the group not to distribute leis as it had planned.

“We greatly apologize to those we offended; it was unintentional,” the Student Bar Association said in an initial Facebook message to members, per the Argus Leader. A second message reportedly sent out on Wednesday informed everyone that the traditional Hawaiian garlands wouldn’t be handed out at the event because “it was determined that these are culturally insensitive.”

Michelle Cwach, the university’s director of marketing communications and university relations, told the Associated Press that a law student had expressed concerns that a “Hawaiian Day” party would use indigenous cultural symbols. 

The state’s Board of Regents, the governing board in charge of six public universities, said before an investigation was initiated that the change was an “isolated instance.”

“There is no system-wide review of university social events by the Board of Regents, and we have no such plans to do so going forward,” spokeswoman Janelle Toman said in an email to the AP.

Cwach added that the board just revised its policy on free speech last fall.

“USD has already addressed this issue with interim law school administration and the SBA to clarify its commitment to the First Amendment,” she told the AP. “USD continues to seek new ways to educate its campus community and current and incoming leaders on its responsibility to the First Amendment.”

However, USD President Sheila Gestring said on Saturday that the school was launching an investigation into whether students’ right to free speech was violated. 

Administrative censorship of student speech and expression is a serious matter and not something USD condones without compelling justification consistent with Board policy, such as a genuine threat,” Gestring’s press release read. “Free expression and a fierce dedication to an open marketplace of ideas is at the very heart of USD’s foundation as a liberal arts university.”

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