Case Study: Fun Home

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic novel memoir of the author’s childhood, particularly focused on her relationship with her closeted gay father Bruce. As Alison grows older and realizes that she is a lesbian, she and Bruce are both forced to confront how his repression may have affected her own self-image and the way that she dealt with her sexuality. Loaded with literary references and appropriately gothic-tinged (“fun home” is the Bechdel children’s abbreviation for funeral home), the book was included on numerous “best of the year” lists, including Publishers Weekly, Time, Amazon.com, and The New York Times. It was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award (memoir/autobiography category) and won an Eisner Award (best reality-based work), the Stonewall Book Award (non-fiction), the GLAAD Media Award (outstanding comic book), and the Lambda Literary Award (lesbian memoir and biography).

As with many critically-acclaimed books — particularly graphic novels — Fun Home soon drew the attention of would-be censors. In 2006, Louise Mills of Marshall, Missouri, requested that the book (and another graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson) be removed from the local public library. Mills characterized the books as “pornography” and expressed concern that children might be drawn to them because they looked like comic books. Another citizen who spoke at a library board meeting even contended that the books could result in “seedy people coming into the library and moving into our community.”

At the time of the challenge, the Marshall Public Library did not have an established materials selection policy, which would have laid out guidelines as to what types of items the library should buy. The library board decided to draft such a policy, but also opted to remove the two books from circulation during the development process. After several months, the board ultimately approved a policy which stated in part that the library would buy materials based on contemporary or social significance, critical acclaim, patron requests or popular demand, and “timeliness and/or significance of subject matter.” Both books clearly met several of these criteria and were restored to circulation immediately when the policy was approved, but the ordeal serves as an object lesson on how important it is for libraries to have a materials selection policy in place before a challenge happens. Additionally, the American Library Association recommends that “challenged materials…remain in the collection during the review process.”

In 2008, Fun Home faced the first of two university-level challenges — a rare feat for any book. A student assigned to read the book in an English class at the University of Utah objected to its content and was offered an alternate assignment in accordance with the school’s religious accommodation policy. The student accepted the alternate assignment, but also alerted a Salt Lake City area group called “No More Pornography” to the book’s inclusion on the course syllabus. The group started an online petition and issued a press release calling for the university to remove the book from its curriculum, but the challenge progressed no further as the English department and the university affirmed that the single student who objected had been reasonably accommodated.

In 2014, the book faced a greater challenge in South Carolina, where the state legislature debated punitive budget cuts against the College of Charleston because it incorporated Fun Home into a voluntary summer reading program for incoming freshman. The proposed state budget would have cut CofC’s funding by $52,000, the exact amount needed for the annual The College Reads 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.

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 condemned the budget “compromise”:

From

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

Dramatists Guild

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Modern Language Association

National Council of Teachers of English

Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.