Funding cuts proposed to punish two South Carolina universities for selecting gay-themed books for their summer reading programs could open the door to First Amendment lawsuits, 10 free-speech advocacy groups caution members of the state Senate.
The state House last week approved a budget that would slice $52,000 from the College of Charleston and $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate for recommending Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home and Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, about South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show, respectively. The figures represent the amount each school spent on last year’s program.
With the state budget now in the hands of the Senate, a coalition that includes the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU of South Carolina sent a letter on Tuesday urging the Senate Finance Committee to reject the cuts, warning, “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: it threatens academic freedom and the quality of education in the state, and could well expose the state to potential liability on First Amendment grounds.”
The letter was co-signed by the American Association of University Professors, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Association of College and Research Librarians, the Modern Language Association, National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Council of Teachers of English.
“Legislative efforts to control discussion and debate in a university setting are ill-advised, both legally and educationally,” the letter added. “They would erode academic freedom, compromise the quality of education, and violate a basic tenet of the First Amendment.”
“The proposed budget cuts are designed to punish the schools solely because some members of the legislature don’t approve of certain books being taught,” NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin said in a separate statement. “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.”
Gov. Nikki Haley hasn’t indicated where she stands on the cuts, saying last week at a press conference that, “We haven’t looked at all the details of the budget yet. I don’t want to get into the details of what the House did because once the Senate gets it sometimes they change that.”