The South Carolina House of Representatives on Monday approved plans to punish two state universities for recommending gay-themed books — including Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home — as part of their summer reading programs.
According to The Associated Press, the House rejected four amendments introduced by Democrats aimed at restoring $52,000 cut from the College of Charleston and $17,142 trimmed from the University of South Carolina Upstate during the budget-writing process. The figures represent what the colleges spent on the programs.
The College of Charleston came under fire last summer for using Bechdel’s 2006 memoir — it’s an account of her childhood with a closeted gay father, his apparent suicide and her own coming out as a lesbian — which was labeled as “pornographic” by a South Carolina Christian group. Similar claims resurfaced last month during the House Ways and Means Committee debate, where some legislators accused the college of promoting a gay agenda and forcing pornography on its students.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), who with Rep. James Smith (D-Columbia) made Monday’s unsuccessful attempts to restore funding, said legislators shouldn’t be “pushing our own moral agenda on these institutions of higher learning.”
“This, Mr. Speaker and members, is about censorship,” Cobb-Hunter said from the floor. “Pure and simple, and us trying to limit academic freedom.”
But Rep. Garry Smith (R-Greenville), a leading proponent of the cuts, argued, “Freedom comes with responsibility. These universities did not act responsibly.”
When House Speaker Bobby Harrell rejected suggestions by Smith to project illustrations from Fun Home on a screen, The AP reports Wendy Nanney (R-Greenville) said, “It’s not appropriate to even put up in this room but we’re giving it to 18-year-old kids?”
According to The Post and Courier, Rep. Rita Allison (R-Lyman) said she received calls from concerned parents and students regarding USC Upstate’s choice of Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, about South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show. “They didn’t want to particularly read a book that was against their values,” said Allison, who asked for “balance” when it comes to reading lists. “These students did not have a choice, they were told.”
The College of Charleston has long emphasized that the books selected for The College Reads program are recommended, not required, reading. “If students were opposed to the book, they were not forced to read it,” a university spokesman told the newspaper. “If the course they were taking required them to read the book, they had the opportunity to drop out of that class and enter another class that did not have that requirement. At no time did the College of Charleston inform students that they were required to read the College Reads book.”
College of Charleston President George Benson underscored to The AP that the university remains committed to academic freedom, saying, “Our students are adults, and we will treat them as such. Faculty, not politicians, ultimately must decide what textbooks are selected and how those materials are taught.”
However, a statement posted last month on The College Reads! website indicates that even before the cuts were upheld, the scrutiny may have already created a chilling effect: Although the program’s committee selected David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers on Dec. 9 for this summer’s edition, informed the provost, signed a contract for the author to appear on campus and ordered the books, “Unlike in previous years, the book has not been announced — presumably at the direction of the Board of Trustees — and a stop payment was issued leaving in limbo the 4,000 books in our possession. The committee has received no explanation for this action.”