Controversy continues to swirl in South Carolina regarding the academic freedoms exercised by public colleges and universities after the state’s house of representatives voted last month to cut the funding budgeted for reading programs for incoming students at two public institutions of higher learning. The legislators voted on Feb. 19 to cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston’s reading program, and $17,142 from the University of South Carolina-Upstate’s program, because of objections to literature with gay/lesbian/bisexual themes being assigned to entering freshmen. Alison Bechdel’s critically-acclaimed graphic memoir, Fun Home, brought about the outcry at the College of Charleston, while Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a collection of essays about gay/lesbian issues, caused the problem at University of South Carolina-Upstate.
The sums cut from each program represent the amounts each university spent on books assigned to their incoming freshmen last summer. In a telephone interview last month, Rep. Garry Smith (R-Simpsonville) told PW that the College of Charleston “did not display good responsibility” in assigning Bechdel’s book, and that it was the responsibility of state legislators in such instances to “review the budget and make cuts.”
Despite a series of amendments sponsored on March 10 by the house Democrats to restore funding to the programs, the Republican majority voted by a 2-1 margin four times to uphold funding cuts to the programs. An amendment, however, to withhold $1 million in state funding from each school until each banned teaching “pornographic content” was withdrawn by the legislator who had introduced it.
"This kind of political interference with academic freedom not only violates core First Amendment values, it compromises the quality of higher education in our state,” Victoria Middleton, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina’s executive director stated in a release issued Wednesday in collaboration with the National Coalition Against Censorship. Eight free speech advocacy and academic organizations, including the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association, and the American Association of University Professors, joined the ACLU and the NCAC in signing a letter dated March 17 that was sent to the members of the South Carolina senate’s finance committee, criticizing the house’s vote and asking the state senate to retain full funding for the College of Charleston and for the University of South Carolina-Upstate.
A vote on the budget by the senate as a whole is expected to occur in early April. In the interim, the ACLU is lobbying members of the finance committee and the legislative staff.
“Penalizing state educational institutions financially simply because members of the legislature disapprove of specific elements of the educational program is educationally unsound and constitutionally suspect,” the letter from the NCAC and ACLU to the finance committee members states, “It is the right of faculty, based on their disciplinary and pedagogical expertise, to develop curriculum and assign books free of outside political interference by legislators who lack such expertise. “