South Carolina House Votes to Punish Schools for Book Assignments
Last month, South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee voted in favor of budget cuts to the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate by amounts matching the money each school spent on required reading programs that included books on LGBT topics ($52,000 and approximately $17,000, respectively). State Representative Garry Smith made clear that the proposal was meant as a punishment for the schools’ choices in reading materials: an illustrated memoir about a lesbian woman and her gay father, and a nonfiction account of South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show.
My colleague Will Creeley has reviewed why the state legislature is legally and morally bound to reject the budget cuts. But yesterday, the House of Representatives voted against amendments that would have restored funding to the two schools, by ratios of almost two to one.
Rep. Rita Allison explained that she had received phone calls from parents and students who disapproved of USC Upstate’s assignment of Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio as part of its required freshman reading program, saying that students “didn’t want to particularly read a book that was against their values.” But assigned reading curricula almost inevitably include ideas or depictions of behavior that clash with someone’s values—the Bible and Shakespeare could easily be objected to on the same grounds. If all such complaints led to budget cuts, few books would be left for the use of state universities.
College of Charleston President P. George Benson released a statement to Inside Higher Ed on why it is imperative that universities be allowed to choose reading materials without interference from state legislators:
Any university education must include the opportunity for students to engage controversial ideas. Our students are adults, and we will treat them as such at the College of Charleston. As one of the oldest universities in the United States, the College of Charleston is committed to the principle of academic freedom. Faculty, not politicians, ultimately must decide what textbooks are selected and how those materials are taught. Any legislative attempt to tie institutional funding to what books are taught, or who teaches them, threatens the credibility and reputation of all South Carolina public universities.
Meanwhile, Rep. Chip Limehouse characterized criticism of the budget provisions as a “faux issue of censorship.” If a financial blow to a university for assigning reading material with which Limehouse evidently disagrees does not constitute censorship, it is unclear what does. One wonders whether Limehouse would be equally sanguine about a budget cut to a university as punishment for assigning his own favorite book.
Representative James Smith reminded his colleagues that fundamental American freedoms are at stake:
Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a S.C. National Guard major who served a tour in Afghanistan, said soldiers might not be reading the books in question. But “Dad-gummit they’re fighting for our students to have (that opportunity).”
We commend Representatives B.R. Skelton, James Smith, and Gilda Cobb-Hunter for their efforts to restore funding to the schools. South Carolina senators who object to the books in question should take note of Rep. Leon Stravrinakis’ take on the situation in considering their votes: “I don’t approve of the material. … But I’m not going to sit here as a legislator and punish the school.” Legislators are free to advocate for the inclusion of differing viewpoints in school reading lists, as are any of the state’s citizens. But they may not, as government actors, establish a price to to be paid by schools simply for exercising their academic freedom by determining what materials will be assigned in classes.