June 19, 2014

South Carolina forces two public universities to “balance” gay-themed reading assignments with the study of “American ideals”


Alison Bechdel is the author of Fun Home, one of two books to stir up controversy in South Carolina. Photo by Elena Siebert, via http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/about

Alison Bechdel is the author of Fun Home, one of two books to stir up recent controversy in South Carolina. Photo by Elena Siebert, via http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/about

In a totally not ironic move, the South Carolina state legislature has voted to punish two public universities for assigning gay-themed literature, by forcing them to use the money they’ve been fined to teach the Constitution and other documents about “American ideals.” South Carolina newspaper The State writes that Governor Nikki Haley “upheld a budget item that requires the College of Charleston and University of South Carolina-Upstate to spend a total of $70,000 to teach the U.S. founding documents. Legislators doled out that punishment because the schools assigned two gay-themed books to freshmen last year.”
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Constitutional punishment was a response to the assigning of  Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel (The College of Charleston), and Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, edited by Candace Chellew-Hodge and Ed Madden (USC-Upstate).

Released in 2006, Fun Home is a New York Times bestselling graphic memoir that was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and named the Best Book of 2006 by Time Magazine.  Out Loud is a 2010 collection of stories, originally aired on South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show, and was assigned as required reading for incoming freshmen. The Charleston Post and Courier quoted Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville, as saying of Fun Home, “It goes beyond the pale of academic debate” because it “graphically shows lesbian acts,” and accusing the college of “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”

Remarkably, the fine and subsequent directive to teach documents about “American ideals” was a compromise. The Chronicle of Higher Education writes that the “South Carolina House of Representatives initially voted to strip the universities of the funds outright, but it later opted, in tandem with state senators, to direct the money to the teaching of the founding documents.” Governor Haley, apparently, “appreciated the compromise.”

Not everyone is so appreciative. The National Coalition Against Censhorship, the ACLU of South Carolina, and the Association of American Publishers are among the ten organizations condemning the compromise.

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.

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.

The measure will put a severe chill on academic freedom in South Carolina, placing students at a competitive disadvantage.

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.