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Ignoring Academic Freedom, South Carolina Legislators Aim to Punish Public Colleges for Choice of Books

It seems like just minutes ago that I was writing about the Tennessee legislature’s ill-considered attempt to silence discussion on campus by prohibiting the payment of outside speakers. Wait a second—it was. Unfortunately, I’m not done, because there’s more deeply depressing news on the state legislative front this morning.

Yesterday, South Carolina lawmakers passed a bill out of committee that would slash thousands of dollars from the budgets of the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate. The reason for the cuts? Each institution assigned books dealing with LGBT topics to freshman required-reading lists. As Shadee Ashtari of Huffington Post College reports:

South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee voted 20-1 on Thursday in favor of a 2014-15 budget that cuts funding from two colleges in the state, as punishment for assigning LGBT-themed books as required reading for freshmen.

The $7 billion spending package, which now awaits approval by the full House, slashed $52,000 from the College of Charleston and $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate. The proposed budget cuts for each school represent how much each institution spent on the book programs.

State Rep. Garry Smith (R), who spearheaded the proposal, argued that schools should provide alternate reading options for students who want to opt out of the required reading materials.

In the summer of 2013, the College of Charleston assigned "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel, a bestselling memoir detailing the lesbian author’s relationship with her father, who she later learned is also gay.

Smith, however, argued in a tweet on Thursday that “Fun Home,” which won the Eisner Award, the GLAAD Media Award and the Lambda Literary Award, “could be considered pornography.”

Conservative S.C. lawmakers targeted USC Upstate for assigning “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” a collection of stories from South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show, in a required course for all freshmen.

Simply put, this is unacceptable both pedagogically and legally. State legislators should not be in the business of dictating the reading lists of college students, let alone punishing educators financially for the pedagogical choices they make. (Both books were chosen by university programs run by faculty members.) This brazen legislative retribution for academic decision making entirely violates any reasonable understanding of academic freedom.

But don’t take it from me; take it from the Supreme Court of the United States. In his concurring opinion in the landmark 1957 case Sweezy v. New Hampshire, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter warned strongly against the “grave harm resulting from governmental intrusion into the intellectual life of a university.” He wrote—and I’m quoting at length here, because this is important:

Progress in the natural sciences is not remotely confined to findings made in the laboratory. Insights into the mysteries of nature are born of hypothesis and speculation. The more so is this true in the pursuit of understanding in the groping endeavors of what are called the social sciences, the concern of which is man and society. The problems that are the respective preoccupations of anthropology, economics, law, psychology, sociology and related areas of scholarship are merely departmentalized dealing, by way of manageable division of analysis, with interpenetrating aspects of holistic perplexities. For society's good—if understanding be an essential need of society—inquiries into these problems, speculations about them, stimulation in others of reflection upon them, must be left as unfettered as possible. Political power must abstain from intrusion into this activity of freedom, pursued in the interest of wise government and the people's well-being, except for reasons that are exigent and obviously compelling.

These pages need not be burdened with proof, based on the testimony of a cloud of impressive witnesses, of the dependence of a free society on free universities. This means the exclusion of governmental intervention in the intellectual life of a university. It matters little whether such intervention occurs avowedly or through action that inevitably tends to check the ardor and fearlessness of scholars, qualities at once so fragile and so indispensable for fruitful academic labor.

Representative Smith would do well to acquaint himself with Sweezy and its reasoning—jurisprudence by which he and his fellow legislators are both legally and morally bound.

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