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South Carolina Budget Punishes Colleges for LGBT Books, Violates Academic Freedom

In a deeply disappointing development yesterday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley approved a provision in the state’s budget that punishes two state universities—the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate—for including LGBT-themed books as required reading for freshmen.

The troublesome provision requires the two institutions to spend the same amount of funds allocated last year on the LGBT-themed books to instead teach the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Federalist Papers, “including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”

Learning about the Constitution is all to the good. (Check out FIRE’s First Amendment lesson plan for high school teachers!) But punishing a college by redirecting funding simply because lawmakers disapprove of educators’ pedagogical choices should be deeply troubling to all of us who care about the First Amendment and academic freedom. And we remind legislators that requiring “devotion to” any set of ideals, even “American” ideals, violates citizens’ First Amendment right to freedom of conscience. As Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote for the Supreme Court in the 1943 landmark case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, striking down a requirement that public school students pledge allegiance to our nation’s flag: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

The provisions are unacceptable and violate core tenets of academic freedom. As FIRE wrote to Governor Haley in March (PDF):

Legislative intrusions into faculty decision-making such as that presented here plainly violate the basic precepts of academic freedom. As the Supreme Court of the United States has repeatedly made clear in rulings spanning decades, academic freedom is protected by the First Amendment, which is fully binding on public institutions of higher education—and, of course, state governments. Punishing South Carolina’s public colleges for pedagogical choices made by faculty members, as the proposed budget does, is a clear violation of this fundamental constitutional right and of freedom of expression more generally.

Political intrusions on academic freedom threaten students, faculty, alumni, and the American public. That’s why FIRE joined a broad coalition of organizations condemning these provisions in an open letter issued today. The coalition includes the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Dramatists Guild, the Modern Language Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

The coalition’s letter explains:

Such leveraging of public funds with the goal of micromanaging curriculum and excluding disfavored ideas is a destructive assault on academic freedom. It violates the right of faculty to develop curriculum and assign books based on their disciplinary and pedagogical expertise and free of outside political interference by legislators who lack such expertise.

Penalizing state educational institutions financially simply because members of the legislature disapprove of specific elements of the educational program is not only educationally unsound, it is constitutionally suspect. The Supreme Court has sent a clear message over decades: lawmakers may not prohibit the expression of ideas simply because they find them to be offensive.

The provision goes further and requires that students be excused from assigned materials or otherwise mandatory lectures or out-of-classroom activities if they object because of “religious, moral or cultural beliefs.” In other words, students are being invited to decide what they will read and learn within any class or discipline. This is a gross perversion of the concept of “higher education,” in which highly trained faculty develop a curriculum that exposes students to material that will enable them to master a topic or field of inquiry.

The new budget sends a chilling message to public institutions throughout South Carolina that the legislature and the Governor will punish institutions for their pedagogical choices. We ask Governor Haley to recognize the terrible precedent that has been set by this unjustifiable interference with academic freedom and to take action to reverse this misguided decision. The students, faculty, and citizens of South Carolina deserve better.

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