(To listen to the best bit, I’d recommend advancing to the 17 minute mark.)
After the South Carolina House passed a bill cutting $52,000 from the College of Charleston for including Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home in a campus reading program,1 the issue moved on to the South Carolina Senate.
Instead, the Senate passed an amendment (proposed by Republican Senator Larry Grooms) with no budget cuts, but ordering the College of Charleston to spend at least $52,000 teaching the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers.3 According to Senator Grooms, public colleges in South Carolina are already required to teach these things by law. As far as I can tell, as long as the College of Charleston is spending at least $52,000 on whatever courses they already have on these subjects, the Grooms amendment doesn’t actually change anything.4 But it gives South Carolina Republicans a face-saving way to stop arguing about “Fun Home.”
This issue isn’t done yet – as I understand it, the South Carolina House and Senate need to agree on final legislation, and it’s not certain that the Governor will sign off on it. But right now it seems likely that Senator Grooms’ “compromise” amendment – which he admits was intended as retribution for assigning Fun Home – will become law.
This may be the best outcome liberals can realistically hope for in South Carolina, but it’s still a terrible precedent. The ACLU of South Carolina puts it well:
We are disappointed in the Senate action, which undermines freedom of thought and expression as well as academic freedom in our state. While no one could oppose closer study of the Constitution and other founding documents of our democracy, today’s Senate action violates the spirit of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment guarantees that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. It rests on the principle that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society, or some part of it, finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
Protecting academic freedom should matter to all of us, not only to college professors. If South Carolina students are to become contributing citizens in the 21st century, they must have freedom to inquire, think critically, and evaluate. If they only read books that confirm or reinforce what they already believe, they cannot learn.
Students in South Carolina are already free to agree or disagree with what they read and hear in a university setting. The budget amendment approved today by the South Carolina Senate is a step backwards for higher education and academic freedom in our state.
Meanwhile, at the other college targeted by the South Carolina Republicans for teaching a book about lgb people, “the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at USC Upstate will be closed” by the school administration in what appears to be an act of retribution for sponsoring a gay-themed play.
(If you want to be entertained/appalled by listening to Fun Home discussed by a bunch of people who haven’t read it, “Brandon Fish” helpfully put a bunch of clips from the SC Senate debate on Youtube. I watched a whole bunch of videos hoping for one in which the speaker would grab the sword on the wall behind him and start dueling, but alas…)
EDITED TO ADD: Rodney Welch reports some highlights from the ludicrous debate. Sample sentence: “When Hutto defended academic freedom, Corbin lost no time throwing the Hitler card.”
- Although I’ve been focusing on the $52,000 cut from the College of Charleston, because of the cartooning connection, the House bill would also cut $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate because they taught Out Loud, a book about a historic pro-gay radio show in South Carolina. [↩]
- Hutto is a First Amendment Hero this week, but as much as I admire him, I wish he’d familiarized himself with Fun Home, or, you know, actually read it. For instance, in the floor debate, he several times explained that Fun Home is “fiction,” even though it’s a non-fiction memoir. [↩]
- Grooms’ amendment also directs USC Upstate to spend at least $17,142 teaching that material. [↩]
- The Amendment also gives students the right to opt out of reading books in the reading program – a right they already had. [↩]