South Carolina “Fun Home” Censorship Update

(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.

Despite a week spent debating the issue, Republicans were unable to pass the House’s cuts, due to a successful filibuster led by Democratic Senator Brad Hutto.2

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.”

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Grooms’ amendment also directs USC Upstate to spend at least $17,142 teaching that material. []
  4. The Amendment also gives students the right to opt out of reading books in the reading program – a right they already had. []
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37 Responses to South Carolina “Fun Home” Censorship Update

  1. 1
    Abbe Faria says:

    The Amendment also gives students the right to opt out of reading books in the reading program – a right they already had.

    No they didn’t. Faculty of course had a right to require reading program books were read (this was merely not exercised in this one instance). Now they don’t. Because a bunch of students and admin were given free rein to make an appalling budget spending decision, and because it pushed the buttons of social justice warriors and conservatives who all thought it was worth making a stand over, the actual right and freedom of faculty to teach has now been compromised. Hope that was worth the extra $52k in their budget.

  2. 2
    Jake Squid says:

    So you’re saying it’s the school’s fault that academic freedom has been curtailed because the faculty exercised their academic freedom?

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    Abbe, what do you mean? As far as I know, faculty didn’t have the right to require reading program books to be read, unless the book also happened to be assigned reading in a class the faculty was teaching. Is that what you’re referring to, or do you mean something else?

  4. 4
    Abbe Faria says:

    Sorry for being unclear.

    Colleges can make students do stuff under pain of explusion/discipline (hence my position in the earlier thread that students do not have academic freedom). This includes faculty acting as a collective deciding on requirements like compulsory degree structure and non class related activity, such as attending inductions, socials, safety training, sexual assault prevention courses etc. Not merely individuals getting to say you read this in my class.

    Could students in this case opt out of reading? Yes. Did they have a right to to? No. Just as, can I post on this blog? Yes. Do have a right to? No, I am just a temporary beneficiary of your discretion.

    Jake. I was not bothered earlier because I didn’t think this was faculty exercising their academic freedom. It was a student experience decision made by a committee including admin and students and involved a budgeting choice. Just as I don’t think, say, sports coaches should have academic freedom to make purchasing decisions, I wasn’t bothered by this committee being slapped down. That seemed fair play on the part of the taxpayer.

    I think the revised law is more worrying than the minor budget cut. It effects the ability of faculty to require non class activity. That does effect their academic freedom.

  5. 5
    Kevin Carson says:

    The Bible-thumping senator is apparently a real dumb fuck. Of all the countless mainstream novels that contain graphic descriptions of sex that were later made into movies or plays, how many actually depicted the sex in graphic detail on screen or stage? People generally perceive visual depictions of sex — of any kind — a lot more viscerally than literary depictions, and ratings authorities rightly or wrongly take that into account.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    It was a student experience decision made by a committee including admin and students

    This is like the second or third time you’ve described the committee in a (seemingly) strategic way so you could avoid admitting that there were also professors on that committee.

    Not that it matters. The idea that because students don’t have absolute freedom in every way, then they therefore don’t have any academic freedom at all, is wrong. I’ve listened to enough of the debate in the SC legislature to be positive that this point you’re fixated on in defense of censorship – that the committee included non-professors as well as professors – was not even a passing concern to the censors in the legislature.

    They censored the College because the college suggested that students read a pro-gay book. If the committee had been made of 100% professors, the SC legislature would have reacted in the exact same way; and it would have identically been censorship. The detail you are fixating upon is entirely irrelevant, and in no principled manner does censorship stop being censorship because a committee was partly rather than entirely composed of professors.

    The complete lack of any logic or principle to your position – you’ve simply picked a completely irrelevant point (the committee was composed of professors and others rather than professors alone) and fixated upon it without even attempting to make a coherent argument or gesture towards why it matters – makes me suspect that you’re just making excuses for why censorship is okay as long as right-wingers are the censors. But maybe I’m wrong about that and this completely nonsensical, irrelevant point you’re hammering on is actually something you illogically give a damn about.

    You are right that the new law (if it becomes law) would give students in involuntary programs that aren’t classes the right to opt out of either the reading matter or of the entire thing. That doesn’t especially bother me – I think students should have the right to opt out of stuff like that, generally. (I do worry that this locks colleges into making all punishments of student infractions retributive rather than rehabilitative.) But you’re right, that’s an effect that I hadn’t thought of.

    However, you’re wrong to say that if this amendment hadn’t passed – if the Democrats hadn’t blocked the original bill, which would have just taken money away from the college – that would have been academic freedom. A situation in which the legislature punishes colleges for assigning books that don’t match the legislature’s ideology is not one in which there is academic freedom. This issue is really that simple. Either you favor free speech and deplore what the SC legislature did, or you defend what they did and you favor political censorship of what colleges can teach.

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    For reference, here is the text of the amendment passed by the South Carolina Senate (amendment 71A):

    (A) From the revenue appropriated or authorized by this act, the University of Charleston must utilize at least $52,000 and USC Upstate must utilize at least $17,000 to comply with the provisions contained in Section 59-29-120, related to instruction in the provisions and principles of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals. The instruction that must given pursuant to this provision may be satisfied by providing or assigning reading materials related to the subject matter.

    (B) A public institution of higher learning that conducts a non-elective reading program, other than as part of an instructional class, must provide alternative reading materials to a student who finds the required reading material objectionable based on a sincerely held religious, moral, or cultural belief. A student who requests alternative materials must not be subjected to any negative consequences or disparate treatment by any officer, official, faculty member, or other employee of the institution as a result of making the request.

    (C) A public institution of higher learning that conducts a mandatory lecture, seminar, or other similar type presentation or program, other than as part of an instructional class, must allow a student who finds the program objectionable based on a sincerely held religious, moral, or cultural belief to decline to attend or otherwise participate in the program. A student who declines to attend or otherwise participate must not be subjected to any negative consequences or disparate treatment by any officer, official, faculty member, or other employee of the institution as a result of making the request.

  8. 8
    mythago says:

    Also, fixating on the idea that this is “a pro-gay book” is silly. Fun Home is not pro-gay propaganda; it’s a memoir of Bechdel’s life, and the complex portrait of her father – who was gay, or at least bisexual – does not exactly paint him in a flattering light that cheerleads for the gay. It does indeed depict a rather nonerotic incident of Bechdel having sex with another woman.

  9. 9
    Abbe Faria says:

    This is like the second or third time you’ve described in the committee in a strategic way so you could avoid admitting that there were also professors on that committee.

    Faculty qua faculty have academic freedom, students and admin don’t. I don’t doubt there are professors helping choose the ale selection at the bar, that doesn’t make it an issue of academic freedom.

  10. 10
    Lee1 says:

    Abbe Faria,

    Colleges can make students do stuff under pain of explusion/discipline (hence my position in the earlier thread that students do not have academic freedom). This includes faculty acting as a collective deciding on requirements like compulsory degree structure and non class related activity, such as attending inductions, socials, safety training, sexual assault prevention courses etc. Not merely individuals getting to say you read this in my class.

    and

    Faculty qua faculty have academic freedom, students and admin don’t.

    If you think college students aren’t awarded some degree of academic freedom at virtually every college or university in the US, even if it’s less than what faculty have, you’re completely wrong. And if you think faculty don’t also have to deal with compulsory activities like “attending inductions, socials, safety training, sexual assault prevention courses etc.” under pain of discipline (especially for non-tenured faculty, but certainly not exclusively so), you have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be one of the vast majority of faculty members at virtually every college or university in the US.

    ETA: Which is to say that the fact that students are compelled to do various things outside of class in no way suggests they don’t have some amount of academic freedom, because faculty are regularly compelled to do the same.

  11. 11
    RonF says:

    It seems wrong to me to describe this as censorship. The students are perfectly free to buy that book or any other at a bookstore or Amazon or numerous other sources and read it. The government will not interfere with this decision. What some members of the SC legislature sought to do was to control what the College of Charleston required its students to buy and read. That’s not censorship. There have been books censored in America. I can remember when you could get arrested and fined for importing Tropic of Cancer or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Those days are past. As long as the students are free to buy and read the book, it is not being censored.

    The question of academic freedom is separate. If the College of Charleston wants to be independent of control by the State legislature, let the College of Charleston stop taking any money from the legislature. As long as the legislature – and thus the taxpayers – are paying the bills, they get to have a say in how the school is run. I think it’s a fallacy that State-funded schools should get to set and execute a curriculum without the State having a say in the matter. Whether that results in a curriculum and an education that’s worth paying for is a separate question, but that doesn’t change the issue of who gets the final say on the curriculum. State-funded colleges and universities are not some special world – they do not get to take the taxpayers’ money but not be accountable to the taxpayer.

  12. 12
    Kevin Carson says:

    The taxpayers of South Carolina are one stakeholder, along with private donors and — a biggie — the students who pay tuition. But oddly enough, the legislature is the only party footing the bill that gets the final word, backed up by cops with guns. If the legislature wants to take advantage of its role in funding to micromanage, maybe it could do something less focused on bible thumping, snake handling and biting the heads off of live chickens, and instead (say) sharply curtail the pay of administrators, cut back the ratio of administrators to students and faculty, increase the number of permanent faculty and make administrators to stop using adjuncts and grad assistants like sweatshop labor to line their own pockets.

    Indeed the ideal would be to transform the university — on the medieval model, and as recommended by Paul Goodman in Community of Scholars — into a stakeholder cooperative governed by students, faculty and support staff, and then to cut the administrative layers by about 90% and use the savings to tell the little Bob Jones groupies in the legislature to shove their money.

  13. 13
    nobody.really says:

    It seems wrong to me to describe this as censorship.

    An accurate distinction, if a semantic one: Clearly no one is banning the publication or sale of a book.

    But just as clearly, the legislature is not acting for the purpose of curtailing wasteful spending in general, or to free students from school-imposed duties to buy books in general. No, it’s clear that the legislature is acting out of animus toward the content (or, at least, what they imagine it the content) of specific books. That’s regrettable, whatever label you put on it.

    The question of academic freedom is separate. If the College of Charleston wants to be independent of control by the State legislature, let the College of Charleston stop taking any money from the legislature.

    I share this view, too. I’m reminded of Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), in which the Supreme Court held that a student paper published by a high school was not entitled to all the First Amendment rights of independent publications. One interpretation of the decision: He who pays the piper calls the tune. I hate to compare state universities to high school – but there you go.

    We can bemoan the loss of a principle/cultural norm of academic freedom, but that’s all it ever was. The piper may be quite indifferent to many tunes people might choose to call, but he always had the right to assert his prerogatives if you provoke him.

    The taxpayers of South Carolina are one stakeholder, along with private donors and — a biggie — the students who pay tuition. But oddly enough, the legislature is the only party footing the bill that gets the final word, backed up by cops with guns.

    Perhaps – but this has nothing to do with the current situation. The legislature is saying that it will not give money to the schools unless certain conditions are met. Private donors have the same right to withhold funds unless certain conditions are met. Students have the same right to withhold funds unless certain conditions are met. No cops or guns required.

    [T]he ideal would be to transform the university … into a stakeholder cooperative governed by students, faculty and support staff….

    Indeed, that’s a fine ideal. The burdens of pulling this off suggest something of the true measure of academic freedom. Not to be trite, but freedom isn’t free.

  14. 14
    Charles S says:

    I hate to compare state universities to high school – but there you go.

    And, indeed, you shouldn’t have. You are misreporting the content of Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier to an absurd degree (but thank you for providing the link so I could go confirm my recollection).

  15. 15
    Ampersand says:

    Ron, I think you’ve mixed up the words “banned” and “censored.” No, the book was not banned (hence still available in bookstores). Yes, what happened was an attempt at censorship – not of the book, but of the reading program. Anytime the legislature punishes or threatens to punish a school because they have a political disagreement with a book the school assigns or stocks in its library, that’s a form of government censorship.

    It looks like South Carolina pays for just under a tenth (pdf link) of the College’s budget. But even if they paid 100%, viewpoint-based discrimination by the government – including of the “stop saying this view we don’t like or we’ll defund you” variety – is unconstitutional. Certainly, it is as far as arts grants go, and I believe it would be likewise unconstitutional as far as college funding goes. (The case Nobody Really linked to had nothing to do with viewpoint discrimination.)

    What if the legislature said that the college was no longer permitted to teach evolution or they’ll defund the science program? Would you be okay with that?

  16. 16
    nobody.really says:

    He who pays the piper calls the tune.

    [V]iewpoint-based discrimination by the government – including of the “stop saying this view we don’t like or we’ll defund you” variety – is unconstitutional.

    Sez who?

    Oh — yeah, the Supreme Court, in USAID v. AOSI.

    Apparently when the government pays the piper, there are limits on tune-calling.

  17. 17
    RonF says:

    Hm. Looking up “censorship”, “censor” and “censoring” shows that it is a subset of “banning”. You can ban a lot of activities for a lot of different reasons – such as banning campfires when there is a high danger of fire hazard in the woods – but “censorship” is the exercise of banning particular things (the expression of certain ideas from being printed or broadcast) for particular reasons (authority judges them to be inimicable to the public – or at least, the authority’s – interest). So the distinction between “censorship” and “banning” seems to be useful. There’s also the question of scope. It again seems to be that a censor exercises a much broader scope than just one particular course in a particular college. So while the SC legislature is certainly interfering with what the school wants to present in a course, I can’t agree that the scope of this makes it censorship.

    What if the legislature said that the college was no longer permitted to teach evolution or they’ll defund the science program? Would you be okay with that?

    I think they have the right to do so. However, I’d think that any actual act on their part to do so would be ridiculous. It should cause the school to lose accreditation. It would also be good reason for high school counselors, parents and anyone in a position to influence high school seniors to advise kids to not attend the school.

    … viewpoint-based discrimination by the government – including of the “stop saying this view we don’t like or we’ll defund you” variety – is unconstitutional. Certainly, it is as far as arts grants go.

    The government is required to parcel out arts grants (if they choose to do so at all) without regards to the viewpoint of the art? I had no idea. I’m sure you have a citation for that – I’d be curious to read it.

  18. 18
    Ampersand says:

    Looking up “censorship”, “censor” and “censoring” shows that it is a subset of “banning”.

    No it’s not. Actually, words aren’t even organized into sets and subsets in that fashion. Your claim makes no sense.

    Look up how the ACLU defines censorship, or how FIRE (a not at all left wing organization) defines censorship. The way I’m using the word “censorship” is perfectly standard; the way you are using it is not.

    But that aside, I think your argument here is extremely weak in principle. There is no question that the legislature is trying to punish universities for assigning books whose politics Republicans disagree with; that is an act that is fundamentally opposed to free thought and freedom. How worthless and weak are the GOP’s viewpoints if they have to resort to attempting to suppress ideas they disagree with? To attempt to defend the GOP’s actions here with a pedantic claim that technically, the awful thing they did isn’t censorship, is to implicitly admit that you don’t have a principled defense of the GOP’s actions.

    The government is required to parcel out arts grants (if they choose to do so at all) without regards to the viewpoint of the art? I had no idea. I’m sure you have a citation for that – I’d be curious to read it.

    To quote Justice Souter from “National Endowment for Arts v. Finley”:

    Congress has no obligation to support artistic enterprises that many people detest. The First Amendment speaks up only when Congress decides to participate in the Nation’s artistic life by legal regulation, as it does through a subsidy scheme like the NEA. If Congress does choose to spend public funds in this manner, it may not discriminate by viewpoint in deciding who gets the money.

    I should note that Souter was writing in dissent. But he and the majority agreed on the point I just quoted – that viewpoint discrimination was unconstitutional. (They disagreed on whether or not the particular statute under consideration was, in fact, viewpoint discrimination.)

    At the beginning of Souter’s dissent, he lists nearly a dozen precedents related to viewpoint discrimination, so if you want more that would be a good place to begin. However, I want to particularly point out to you Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, in which the Court repudiated the “he who pays the piper calls the tune” approach in a case about the University discriminating against a Christian student publication by choosing not to fund it, even though they funded other student publications. The government, once it sets up a funding mechanism, isn’t allowed to withhold funds because they don’t like the Christian viewpoint – or the pro-gay viewpoint.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    I think my concept of subsets is reasonable – there are many things that can be banned. Banning publication of particular ideas is censorship, banning white T-shirts in the outfield stands because the hitters can’t see the pitch against a white backrgound and might get beaned is not.

    To explore your comment about how the word “censorship” is used I looked up “FIRE censorship” and ended up reading the President of FIRE’s discussion of campus censorship, along with a few of the cited links. Here are some of his examples of censorship; 1) Valdosta University expelling a student for posting on Facebook a critique of a new garage built there and mock-naming the garage the university president’s “memorial garage”, 2) speech codes at numerous schools banning students from saying certain things that someone finds offensive, 3) IUPUI trying and finding a student-employee guilty of racial harassment for reading the book “Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan” during his work breaks, 4) Syracuse University effectively expelling a graduate student from its teaching program after he complained on Facebook about a racially charged comment made in his presence by a community leader that student teachers were coming from Syracuse rather than historically black colleges.

    These are attempts at controlling the expression of certain ideas by people affiliated with those schools anywhere, in any fashion, regardless of whether they are part of the school’s curricula. If the South Carolina legislature tried to ban a given book from being read at all on campus, even if the student of faculty member had bought it themselves, banned them from talking about it on campus or if they banned someone from being a faculty member or a student because they had written a Facebook posting about the book then I would agree with you that it was censorship. Simply telling the school that it can’t be part of the curriculum is a much different level of restriction than what FIRE is calling censorship from what I’ve seen so far.

    Defending this action? I’m not. I haven’t read the book they’re talking about. I don’t know if their action is justified or not. But I see no conflict in defending someone’s right to do something even if I disapprove of the actual thing they intend to do. In fact, it’s necessary. It helps preserve my right to do something even if someone else with authority disapproves of what I intend to do. But I do think that the State has the right to set educational standards in State schools, and that includes the details of the curricula. I do appreciate the reference to the art grants. But then this isn’t an art grant, it’s a State school curricula which a State certainly has a right to control. Doesn’t your local school board tell the schools what text books to use and what things to teach?

  20. 20
    Ampersand says:

    I think it’s fairly clear that what the SC legislature tried to do is, in fact, unconstitutional under the Court’s historic interpretation of the First Amendment.

    I’ll just quote FIRE’s March letter to the Governor of South Carolina about this issue (pdf link), which makes the case well:

    Legislative intrusions into faculty decision-making such as that presented here plainly violate the basic precepts of academic freedom. As the Supreme Court of the United States has repeatedly made clear in rulings spanning decades, academic freedom is protected by the First Amendment, which is fully binding on public institutions of higher education—and, of course, state governments. Punishing South Carolina’s public colleges for pedagogical choices made by faculty members, as the proposed budget does, is a clear violation of this fundamental constitutional right and of freedom of expression more generally.

    The Supreme Court has observed that academic freedom is a “special concern of the First Amendment,” holding that “[o]ur nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.” Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967). As the Court remarked in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957):

    The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. … Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

    Inflicting financial punishments upon state universities because of the content of texts assigned to students imposes precisely such a strait jacket and is thus an unacceptable result under long-established and legally binding First Amendment jurisprudence. The intellectual inquiry of students and faculty at South Carolina’s public institutions of higher learning cannot lawfully be constrained by legislators’ apparent desire to prohibit certain viewpoints from campus, memorably and aptly identified by the Court as “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (internal citation omitted).

    To illustrate the principles threatened by the House of Representative’s disregard for academic freedom, Felix Frankfurter’s concurring opinion in Sweezy offers an eloquent warning against the “grave harm resulting from governmental intrusion into the intellectual life of a university”:

    Progress in the natural sciences is not remotely confined to findings made in the laboratory. Insights into the mysteries of nature are born of hypothesis and speculation. The more so is this true in the pursuit of understanding in the groping endeavors of what are called the social sciences, the concern of which is man and society. The problems that are the respective preoccupations of anthropology, economics, law, psychology, sociology and related areas of scholarship are merely departmentalized dealing, by way of manageable division of analysis, with interpenetrating aspects of holistic perplexities. For society’s good—if understanding be an essential need of society—inquiries into these problems, speculations about them, stimulation in others of reflection upon them, must be left as unfettered as possible.

    Political power must abstain from intrusion into this activity of freedom, pursued in the interest of wise government and the people’s well-being, except for reasons that are exigent and obviously compelling. These pages need not be burdened with proof, based on the testimony of a cloud of impressive witnesses, of the dependence of a free society on free universities. This means the exclusion of governmental intervention in the intellectual life of a university. It matters little whether such intervention occurs avowedly or through action that inevitably tends to check the ardor and fearlessness of scholars, qualities at once so fragile and so indispensable for fruitful academic labor.
    Sweezy, 354 U.S. at 261–62 (Frankfurter, J., concurring).

    FIRE opposes attempts by elected officials to stifle discussion at public universities by threatening their funding when they assign texts or spark conversations that the officials dislike. We hope that with your leadership, South Carolina’s elected officials will recognize the tremendous benefits our society has gained from affording our institutions of higher education independence and academic freedom. That this freedom may sometimes result in consideration of ideas that politicians oppose is inevitable—but in our free society, we must answer ideas we dislike through open debate and discussion, not threats and coercion from those in power.

    The politicians who support punitive actions against the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate must understand that attempts to punish or preempt intellectual inquiry are not only unwise, but also bring more public attention to the opinions that they wish to suppress and to strengthen the resolve of those who hold those opinions. Americans famously and rightfully prize freedom of speech and academic freedom and look suspiciously upon those who, rather than engage in debate on the merits of their ideas, seek to stop that debate from happening at all.

    We urge you to take decisive action to protect academic freedom in South Carolina. In order to preserve the marketplace of ideas at South Carolina’s public campuses, the Legislature’s attempt to punish educators because of the content of assigned readings must be rejected and removed immediately.

  21. 21
    Abbe Faria says:

    The letter’s certainly interesting. FIRE correctly restrict academic freedom to faculty. But seem unaware the spending decision was also made by students and staff.

  22. 22
    RonF says:

    Well, I bow to the Court’s authority if not their reasoning. If precedent clearly holds that this is unconstitutional, so be it.

    I find this interesting:

    To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. … Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

    On that basis it would seem that designated free speech zones, speech codes and the activities cited in the link I provided would be considered by the Court as unconstitutional as well. These days the strait jacket imposed on the students and faculties of our universities has a label stating “P.C.” As an increasing number of dissenting students, faculty members and even invited commencement speakers can tell you, freedom to discuss ideas in the academy is an endangered species.

    What say you to that, Amp?

  23. 23
    Ampersand says:

    On that basis it would seem that designated free speech zones, speech codes and the activities cited in the link I provided would be considered by the Court as unconstitutional as well. These days the strait jacket imposed on the students and faculties of our universities has a label stating “P.C.” As an increasing number of dissenting students, faculty members and even invited commencement speakers can tell you, freedom to discuss ideas in the academy is an endangered species.

    What say you to that, Amp?

    I think that you’re painting with a broad brush, and I’d rather look at all those topics on a case-by-case basis. “Free Speech Zones” seem like clear cases of censorship to me, and are almost always assaults on free speech, imo. But even in that case, I could imagine a individual situation in which a college had a compelling reason to restrict where protesters can go (if the protest site was an unsafe condemned building, for example). Speech codes may or may not be impermissible censorship, depending on the content of the code. (For instance, I doubt that a code forbidding credible threats of violence would get into trouble.)

    I don’t see how protesting an invited commencement speaker goes against free speech. FIRE’s president has made this his primary issue area in the last couple of months, and frankly his argument seems ridiculous to me (and I don’t think even he claims that what the students are doing is in any way illegal). Students have a free speech right to protest their college’s choice of commencement speaker. Commencement speakers do not have the right not to be criticized.

  24. Ron:

    As an increasing number of…invited commencement speakers can tell you, freedom to discuss ideas in the academy is an endangered species.

    Let’s remember that a commencement speech is not about the discussion of ideas. A commencement speech is not followed by a Q&A; there is no opportunity for rebuttal or for programming designed to present alternative ideas and perspectives. The invitation of a commencement speaker at the very least implies an endorsement of the speaker’s politics, intellectual/business/political practices, accomplishments and so on.

    The speaker is being held up as an example, a role model, someone with something inspiring and motivating to say to students when they graduate; and so he or she is not in the same position as a faculty member teaching a class, a speaker invited to engage students and faculty in discussion and debate, and so on. The act of protesting a commencement speaker, it seems to me, is therefore very different from trying to silence/disinvite/prevent from being heard a speaker/faculty member in the latter category.

    When the latter happens, it is very disturbing; and though I think it happens, Ron, far less frequently than your comments implies, I realize that I could be wrong, and, anyway, the question of how often it happens and which side of the political spectrum is trying to do the silencing is still an important one to discuss. But to conflate that situation with a commencement speech is to mistake what is essentially an opportunity for someone to get up on a soapbox in front of a captive audience for the “marketplace of ideas” that higher education is supposed to be.

  25. 25
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    The commencement speaker thing isn’t about free speech in a constitutional sense, insofar as there’s obviously no infringement on 1st amendment rights. Neither are properly written speech codes (which restrict only non-protected speech) a problem,

    FIRE’s point is note–correctly, I think–that there is a increasingly un-liberal intolerance for speech which is deemed to be inappropriate. The old ideal was commonly summed up as “the solution for bad speech is more speech–the more they talk the more opportunity we have to prove them wrong.” That is being replaced with a newer mentality of “the solution for bad speech is to ban it, disrupt it, and try to prevent it.”

    moreover, for commencement speakers it’s even more that way: they are rarely going to speak about an especially controversial topic at commencement itself (does anyone seriously think Condoleeza Rice would plan to argue about the Iraq war at commencement?) and are generally protested because of the things they said somewhere ELSE.

    That perspective is inherently opposed to freedom of speech, though it doesn’t necessarliy step on any Constitutional toes.

  26. 26
    Jake Squid says:

    I disagree with your assertion about protest against commencement speakers being anti-free speech, g&w. Assuming, of course, that the protest is by the soon to be captive audience. See lgm blog for more detail on my position.

  27. 27
    Ampersand says:

    From LGM:

    But the commencement speakers almost certainly aren’t going to get up there and do that, because, well, it’s a commencement speech. Choosing a commencemnt speaker isn’t about choosing someone with a controversial view so they can offer an intellectual defense of it, it’s about choosing someone to be honored for their accomplishments. The content of the speech isn’t the statement, the person giving it is, and it’s a statement being made by the university administration.

    Making objections that the target chosen protest is fine–I don’t see what Legarde herself has done that would merit protesting her–but these purely process-based based objections are ridiculous. They’re another instance of the Charles G. Koch theory of free speech, which says that free speech is the rich and well-connected saying whatever they want, whenever they want, and the rest of us get to sit and listen respectfully.

    And from a different post (emphasis added):

    Commencement speeches are about honoring the speaker, often with the tuition money of students. The idea that students and faculty should shut their yaps and not give their opinion about who is worthy of such honors stands the idea of free speech on its head. We’re not talking about who has the right to speak; we’re talking about who should be honored by the university. These are very different questions.

  28. 28
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    If there were only protests against commencement speakers without the context of frequent protests against other speakers, then it would seem less of an issue. But this is part and parcel of a larger trend, I think.

    Also, even if it is a”captive audience,” as you put it…. well, so is pretty much every mandatory college class, right? And so is every elective class after the add/drop period ends. The concept that it is inappropriate for someone to theoretically hear a 20 minute speech by someone they disagree with is pretty ridiculous in and of itself, but seems super-extra-special-ridiculous in the college context.

  29. 29
    Ampersand says:

    And please read all of this post: What does a “culture of free speech” look like? It’s very short, but I don’t want to quote it in full because quoting an entire post by another blogger somehow seems rude.

    G&W, could you address the question given in that post? In what way is a culture in which students shut up a healthier “free speech culture” than one in which they protest?

  30. G&W:

    Also, even if it is a”captive audience,” as you put it…. well, so is pretty much every mandatory college class, right? And so is every elective class after the add/drop period ends. The concept that it is inappropriate for someone to theoretically hear a 20 minute speech by someone they disagree with is pretty ridiculous in and of itself, but seems super-extra-special-ridiculous in the college context.

    Except that the professor in a mandatory class is obligated to teach the course content as described in the college catalogue and/or her or his syllabus. The fact that he or she is teaching the class does not constitute an institutional endorsement of her or his personal politics—or achievements, except as they relate to the teaching of that course. More to the point, students who find what and how a professor teaches to be objectionable have recourse. Every college has a grade grievance policy, and there are procedures in place for expressing dissatisfaction with such professors even when grades per se are not at issue. My chair has, more than once, even after the drop/add period is over, moved students from one class to another because of serious problems with the professor.

    I know that does not address the problem with the professor, which is a whole other discussion that is worth having; my point here is simply that there is a difference between the meaning of a commencement speech and the meaning of a class or other issue-oriented programming, and that there is a difference between the position of a student in relation to a professor or programmed speaker and the position of a student at graduation in relation to a commencement speaker.

    The issue, in other words, is not whether it is inappropriate to ask a college student to listen to a 20 minute talk by someone they find objectionable; the question is whether or not it is appropriate for students to have a say in the meaning of their own graduation ceremony.

  31. 31
    Ampersand says:

    According to Greg Lukianoff, who is the president of FIRE and has been pounding the drum on this “dis-invitation season” issue, since 2012 FIRE knows of 26 “successful” disinvites – that is, cases in which a speaker either voluntarily withdrew in response to student protests, or in which the invitation to speak was withdrawn. (Lukianoff says so about six minutes into this radio program.) Lukianoff was later eager to explain that this number isn’t limited to commmencement speakers – that’s from the set of all people invited to speak on a college campus since 2012.

    26 doesn’t sound like a large number to me. Since 2012 either means 2 or 3 years; let’s make the strongest case for Lukianoff by assuming 2. So that’s 13 a year. There are 2,870 four-year colleges in the US (I’m again being kind to Lukianoff by excluding 2-year colleges).

    Now comes the question I have no idea how to answer: How many invited guest speakers are there, per year, at a typical college campus? I can’t even imagine how to measure this. Any student organization might bring in a speaker or two in a year, but some will bring in none, and some – such as a comic book society that organizes a mini-con with a dozen guests – bring in many more than one or two. How many student organizations are there on a college campus? At Tufts – the first result I got when searching for “list of all student organizations” – there are over 300 student organizations on their list. In addition to student orgs, there are many non-student organizations – such as classrooms, academic departments, the college itself, etc – that bring in speakers.

    When I was at PSU, speakers I saw on campus included ranged from then-Senator Gordon Smith (R), who spoke to my polisci class, to celebrities like Michael Moore, to then-candidate Obama, to someone from the city planning bureau. Judging from the flyers people posted, there were multiple speakers every week of the school year, most on subjects of no interest whatsoever to me. Let’s say there were 2 speakers a week, although I’m certain the true number is higher than that. In a 30 week academic year, PSU had about 60 speakers.

    If 60 is typical, then there are about 5,740 invited speakers a year on US college campuses. Of whom, about 13 are either disinvited or cancel because of student objections. So that’s, what, 0.2% of speakers?

    I don’t think Lukianoff’s claim that it’s hard to find a speaker that won’t be protested is reasonable, given those numbers.

  32. 32
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Ampersand says:
    G&W, could you address the question given in that post? In what way is a culture in which students shut up a healthier “free speech culture” than one in which they protest?

    Sure! Would you mind addressing the questions I wrote to you earlier, in the other post? Seems like fair play.

    Anyway: That is a false dichotomy. The solution “don’t say anything at all” is not, of course, an especially free-speech-y kind of solution. That’s probably why the author chose that particular straw man.

    But from a free speech perspective, the ideal course is to present competing views–to call for a speaker that would present an opposite side, or to call for recognition of competing positions. The less ideal course is to call for the speaker not to come.

    To use another analogy, it’s the difference between saying “you should not invite that speaker to campus or teach that class” versus saying “if you’re going to bring them to campus, you should also invite ___ to campus or teach ___ class.”

  33. 33
    Ampersand says:

    But from a free speech perspective, the ideal course is to present competing views–to call for a speaker that would present an opposite side, or to call for recognition of competing positions. The less ideal course is to call for the speaker not to come.

    Wait, you’re ignoring that the issue is not merely whether or not so-and-so speaks; it’s whether so-and-so is going to be honored with $30,000 paid from tuition money, the commencement speaking slot, and (often) an honorary degree.

    The solution you suggest might make sense if it were merely a matter of inviting Condi Rice to give a lecture. But that wasn’t the issue here, and it’s disingenuous of you to pretend that it is.

    What you’re saying is that it’s NOT okay for students to say “no, Condi Rice is a war criminal, and she shouldn’t be honored in this way at all.” You consider it acceptable for them to object in other ways – but not acceptable for them to say what they actually think, which is that it’s wrong and objectionable for her to be honored in that way.

    Suppose the university was going to honor a Nazi. Would you consider it wrong for students to say “no, that Nazi shouldn’t be honored and paid $30,000 and given an honorary degree by the university?” Should they instead be limited to saying “okay, honor the Nazi and pay her $30,000, but acknowledge that there are anti-Nazi views as well?” That seems pretty ridiculous – and, frankly, like a completely arbitrary designation of what is and isn’t acceptable to say.

    Would you mind addressing the questions I wrote to you earlier, in the other post?

    I don’t mind, but could you be much, much more specific? I mean, there are a lot of threads, and a lot of questions, and I probably end up not answering about 80% of the comments I should answer (time being limited and all that), and I’m probably much more of a scatterbrain than you realize. :-)

  34. 34
    mythago says:

    The old ideal was commonly summed up as “the solution for bad speech is more speech–the more they talk the more opportunity we have to prove them wrong.”

    In what way is a protest not “more speech”? Other than the Preferred First Speaker doctrine?

  35. 35
    RonF says:

    To clarify; I think students have a perfect right to protest Condeleeza Rice’s appearance at their school. I think there are two other errors here, though:

    1) Their presumption that Ms. Rice is indeed a war criminal and that the war in Iraq is (as claimed in the blog post Amp linked to) “the greatest political failure of the last generation” – perhaps they might come to a different conclusion if they heard her speak for herself, and
    2) The school administration caving in to a minority of the students and faculty and actually cancelling her appearance.

    Richard, I concede that you’re right in that a lecture possibly followed by Q&A and a commencement speech are two different things. When Henry Kissinger spoke at Kresge Auditorium at MIT in 1972 I was among the protestors. When I was told that I was opposing free speech I said “If Henry Kissinger wants to stand outside and give a speech for free to whoever wants to listen I’d have no complaints. I’m not against free speech. My issue is that I’m against him giving a PAID speech with my money.”

    My suspicion, though, is that if Ms. Rice actually showed up at Rutgers and attempted to deliver a speech for no honoraria of any sort (whether money, a degree or whatever), the people involved in this protest would still protest not just her politics and previous actions but her presence on campus and would attempt to shut it down regardless of whoever in their community might wish to hear her. Opposing views simply must not be heard on many campuses these days.

    Amp, I suppose that a detailed look at “free speech zones” and speech codes would take up threads of their own. At this point, though, I think it’s fair to say that on many campuses “free speech zones” are more than just an attempt to keep people away from hazardous conditions and the speech codes are more than just an attempt to keep people from threatening violence.

  36. 36
    Jake Squid says:

    At this point, though, I think it’s fair to say that on many campuses “free speech zones” are more than just an attempt to keep people away from hazardous conditions and the speech codes are more than just an attempt to keep people from threatening violence.

    At this point I think it’s fair to say that “free speech zones” are more than just an attempt to keep people away from hazardous conditions and the speech codes are more than just an attempt to keep people from threatening violence. Period. They are, and have been since at least the turn of the century, a way to squash free speech.

  37. 37
    Ampersand says:

    perhaps they might come to a different conclusion if they heard her speak for herself, and

    This seems unlikely. Defenders of the Iraq War and of torture, including Ms. Rice, have spoken and written their arguments in public many times, and anyone who is interested in this issue has already been exposed to those arguments many times. Futhermore, as far as I can tell Ms. Rice gives the same speech at all her commencement addresses, and her main theme is the value of education and the responsibilities of educated people to the world – as far as I can tell, she never mentions Iraq policy at all.

    2) The school administration caving in to a minority of the students and faculty and actually cancelling her appearance.

    Didn’t Rice choose to withdraw? Or are you assuming that the administration asked her to?

    I’m sure anytime Rice appears on a mainstream campus there are some protestors (and it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise in a country with free speech). But although I can’t think of any way of proving it, I suspect the large difference between a commencement address and other sorts of appearances have an effect on how widespread protests become.

    In other words, the protestors are not the Borg – they don’t think with a single massmind. If Rice appeared in some other format – say, a public debate with a credible opponent of the Iraq War – some of the same people would protest, as you say. But others of the same people would say “that’s different, I don’t have a problem with that.” Still others would say “where do I buy my ticket?”

    Regarding “opposing views simply must not be heard”: Rice is a frequent speaker on college campuses (both Christian and mainstream), and is also a professor at Stanford. She can apparently command $150,000 speaking fees, which implies that she is in high demand as a campus speaker. So in the current system, both Rich and the student protestors have access to speech and are able to be heard. So even if there ARE students who believe that views like Rice must never be heard, they’re clearly ineffective.

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