Some South Carolina state legislators still just don’t get it. As readers of The Torch know, South Carolina’s legislature is still considering a budget proposal designed to penalize two state colleges—the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate—for choosing two LGBT-themed books as required reading for freshmen.
My colleagues have already covered the serious legal and moral implications of this censorship effort here on The Torch, but a recent comment from State Representative Stephen Goldfinch (R-Georgetown) is so misguided that it warrants further mention. Yesterday, Rep. Goldfinch told The State that:
“This is an example where intervention is necessary,” said Goldfinch, whose wife is on the College of Charleston board. “There are times either side can trample on freedoms of anybody. This book trampled on freedom of conservatives. It would been the same if it was an anti-Muslim book or an anti-Semitic book. Teaching with this book, and the pictures, goes too far.” [Emphasis added.]
So here we have an elected official in the United States of America saying publicly that having to read a book with which one disagrees is a violation of one’s freedom. As shocking as this may sound, Representative Goldfinch is not alone in his belief that someone’s rights can be violated merely because they had to read (or even see) a book that someone might find offensive. For example, readers may recall the case of Keith John Sampson, the student-employee at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who was charged with racial harassment for merely reading a book in his work’s break room. The book, a historical account of a 1924 street fight between Notre Dame students and members of the Ku Klux Klan, landed Sampson in trouble after one of his co-workers complained, saying she found the cover of the book offensive (even though the book itself was in no way supportive of the Klan).
Indeed, this belief that one has a right not to hear and engage with ideas one disagrees with or finds offensive has become pervasive. It is this phenomenon that inspired the title of FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s latest book, Unlearning Liberty, in which he discusses extensively the growth of this phenomenon on America’s college and university campuses.
The belief that one has the right to avoid ideas one finds offensive is problematic because it prevents ideas from being debated openly—as they must be in a free society. When this attitude begins to infect (or is imposed upon) universities, it conditions our future leaders to think that it is acceptable to curtail our basic freedoms to avoid discomfort. That’s why it is so critical for people who understand the importance of free speech and open debate to challenge this notion wherever and whenever we see it arise. It brings to mind one of my favorite quotations, from a speech by Judge Learned Hand:
Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.
It is clear that Representative Goldfinch and other legislators supporting this budget are offended by the LGBT content that is part of the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate’s respective curriculums. Hopefully, they will eventually understand that they must put aside their content-based concerns to stand up for the rights to free speech and academic freedom that allow our society to thrive and our colleges to function. As Judge Hand so eloquently expressed, we cannot rely on the courts alone to do it. By vocally standing up for the rights of others to speak—especially when we disagree with or are offended by what they have to say—we can do the important work of protecting our liberty.