Policy: Budgets & Deficits

South Carolina lawmakers vote to punish colleges' book choices with budget cuts

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Education,Associated Press,Books,South Carolina,Budgets and Deficits,Higher Education

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina legislators want to punish two public colleges for assigning books on homosexuality to freshmen.

The House budget-writing committee on Wednesday tentatively approved a spending plan for 2014-15 that would cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston and $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate.

Last summer, the College of Charleston assigned the Alison Bechdel book, "Fun Home," to incoming freshmen. Bechdel's book describes her childhood with a closeted gay father and her own coming out as a lesbian.

USC Upstate assigned "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," referring to South Carolina's first gay and lesbian radio show, for a required course for all freshmen, which included lectures and other out-of-classroom activities meant to spark discussions about the book. Social conservatives complained about the colleges' selections.

The proposed reductions in the budget equal what the colleges spent on the programs.

Rep. Garry Smith said he made the proposal after college officials refused to give students an option to read something else. Making a point requires impacting colleges' wallets, he said.

"I understand diversity and academic freedom," said Smith, R-Simpsonville. "This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate."

He said he wouldn't oppose the books if they were part of an elective course, rather than a campus-wide requirement.

The House Ways and Means Committee defeated by a vote of 13-10 an effort by Republican Rep. B.R. Skelton to restore the money. He argued such retribution is inappropriate.

"If we're going to begin funding institutions on the basis of books they've assigned, we're going down a road we don't need to go down," said Skelton, R-Six Mile, a retired Clemson University professor.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Hopkins, called the budget action akin to using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.

Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said legislators have no right pushing their own personal beliefs onto colleges. Such censorship can set a troubling precedent, she said. She warned Republicans who voted against Skelton's amendment that the punishment could negatively affect the state's image and job recruitment efforts.

"We are now in a posture where individual moral compasses and beliefs are being pushed down on our institutions of higher education," said Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. "Do you think for one minute some companies are going to look seriously at us, when they think about their workforce coming to a state like this, with members of a Legislature who believe their job is to pass judgment on colleges of higher learning to dictate what books people are going to read?"

Rep. Jim Merrill, among Republicans who voted to kill Skelton's amendment, said he was torn. Though the reading mandate bothers him, he said, it's an issue that should be taken up with college boards.

"This might make us feel better, but it's kind of stupid," said Merrill, R-Charleston.

Skelton's next amendment brought chuckles from both the audience and the committee. Since legislators want to get so involved in college book selections, he said, they should be responsible for approving every book on a college reading list. His proposal would give that responsibility to the Ways and Means subcommittee on which Smith sits. Skelton pulled his proposal, also designed to make a point, before a vote.

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