COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House refused Monday to back down from plans to punish two public colleges in the budget for assigning freshmen to read books dealing with homosexuality.
The House rejected multiple attempts to restore $52,000 cut from the College of Charleston and $17,142 cut from the University of South Carolina Upstate. Those are the amounts the universities spent on books assigned to incoming freshmen last summer. The efforts failed by votes of 69-41, 70-43, 71-40 and 71-38.
Opponents argued the cuts censor and micromanage college decisions.
When it comes to public colleges, legislators should be debating funding and building construction, not “pushing our own moral agenda on these institutions,” said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
“Are we saying we don’t trust the college students enough to expose them to something they may not have seen before? We can’t let you read anything other than what we believe?” she asked. “What about the notion of freedom to have different views?”
College of Charleston students read Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, which describes her childhood with a closeted gay father and her own coming out. USC Upstate assigned Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, referring to South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show, for a freshmen course that included lectures and other out-of-classroom activities meant to spark discussions about the book.
Rep. Garry Smith, whose subcommittee made the cuts, said he wanted to make a point after college officials declined to give students an option to read something else. He said he wouldn’t oppose the books if they were part of an elective course.
“Freedom comes with responsibility. These universities did not act responsibly,” said Smith, R-Simpsonville.
Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, said opponents of the cuts argue for diversity of ideas but don’t want to consider conservatives’ viewpoint.
After House Speaker Bobby Harrell rejected Smith’s suggestions to project illustrations from Fun Home on the House screen, Nanney said, “It’s not appropriate to even put up in this room but we’re giving it to 18-year-old kids?”
The votes came as the House opened floor debate on the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The spending plan commits $7 billion in state taxes. The state budget would total $24 billion, up from $22.5 billion this year, when including all revenue sources, such as federal money, fees, fines, lottery profits and tuition at public colleges.
While other sections of the budget passed quickly with no discussion, the college cuts tied up debate for hours. Debate on other sections will continue Tuesday.
College of Charleston President George Benson said the university is committed to academic freedom, and any university education must include the opportunity for students to engage controversial ideas. Any attempt by legislators to tie funding to what books are taught threatens the credibility of all of South Carolina’s public colleges, he said.
“Our students are adults, and we will treat them as such,” Benson said. “Faculty, not politicians, ultimately must decide what textbooks are selected and how those materials are taught.”