Today, CBLDF joined a coalition of free speech advocates led by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the ACLU of South Carolina in issuing a joint statement that condemns a recent budget provision “compromise” that penalizes two state universities for assigning LGBTQ books.
The South Carolina legislature considered punitive budget cuts for two universities that utilized LGBTQ-themed books in voluntary reading programs. The budget cuts were aimed at two schools: College of Charleston, which had used Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in a voluntary summer reading program for incoming freshman, and the University of South Carolina Upstate, which had used Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio for a similar program.
In March, CBLDF joined a coalition led by NCAC to urge the South Carolina Senate to reject the budget cuts, and the Senate Finance Committee rightly rejected them. However, the full Senate continued to debate the budget, coming up with a “compromise”: Instead of cutting the funds, the legislature proposed a budget provision that doesn’t cut funding but — in a an act of irony so classic that it should be included in the dictionary — the provision reallocated the funds to books that teach about the Constitution. From NCAC’s official press release regarding the joint statement:
The provision forces the two colleges to allocate the exact amounts spent on “objectionable” books to teach the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Federalist papers, “including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”
The budget provision was accepted by Governor Nikki Haley. However, NCAC executive director Joan Bertin has been vocal about the “compomise”:
But according to NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin, “what has been ‘compromised’ here is the bedrock First Amendment principle that public officials are precluded by the First Amendment from suppressing ideas because they find them ‘objectionable’.”
This budget provision is a far cry from the compromise proposed by South Carolina state senator Brad Hutto, who would have required the availability of an alternative reading assignment while preventing South Carolina’s General Assembly from dictating which books are assigned.
The budget provision is most certainly an attack on the right to read in the state and clearly represents unwarranted political interference with academic freedom and undermines the integrity of the higher education system in South Carolina.
The joint statement follows in its entirety:
National Coalition Against Censorship, American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, American Association of University Professors , American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Dramatists Guild, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Modern Language Association and National Council of Teachers of English
June 13, 2014
As national organizations dedicated to freedom of speech and academic freedom, we strongly condemn the budget provision adopted by the South Carolina Legislature and accepted by Governor Haley on June 12, 2014, which penalizes two institutions of higher education for assigning books about the lives and experiences of gays and lesbians.
The provision requires the schools, the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate, to spend the exact amounts spent on the “objectionable” books to teach the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Federalist papers, “including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.” It also mandates that students be allowed to avoid encountering educational material they find “objectionable based on a sincerely held religious, moral, or cultural belief.”
The provision is ostensibly a compromise, replacing a previous version in the House to cut funding in amounts to reflect the cost of the books. The version enacted poses exactly the same concerns as the initially proposed cuts: it represents unwarranted political interference with academic freedom and undermines the integrity of the higher education system in South Carolina. The history of the legislative debate makes it 100% clear that the legislature’s primary concern is to force schools to eliminate educational content that some legislators dislike, or risk financial penalties.
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 result of the state’s action is potentially crippling to a democratic and globally competitive college education, which must empower students with broad knowledge and transferable skills, as well as prepare them for civic engagement. Such an education requires that students are presented with a wide variety of competing ideas and taught to look at them critically, to listen to others’ arguments, and to present their own.
The measure will put a severe chill on academic freedom in South Carolina, placing students at a competitive disadvantage.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina
American Association of University Professors
American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression
Association of American Publishers
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
Modern Language Association
National Council of Teachers of English
Previously on CBLDF: