South Carolina House votes to cut funds for universities over gay-themed books

The South Carolina House of Representatives approved nearly $70,000 in cuts to two public universities on Wednesday in retaliation over reading material containing homosexual themes, a move decried as “censorship” by critics but called necessary by supporters.

The House approved the cuts to the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina-Upstate as part of the 2014-2015 budget bill after bids by Democrats to restore the funding failed. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Republican state Rep. Garry Smith proposed $52,000 in cuts to the College of Charleston and $17,142 in cuts to the USC-Upstate. The amount represents the costs of the schools’ required-reading programs.

The College of Charleston’s program selects one book a year for the entire campus to read, which this year was Alison Bechdel's “Fun Home,” a memoir about the author growing up as a lesbian in rural Pennsylvania. USC-Upstate’s program has first-year writing students all read the same book, which this year was “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” a compilation of stories shared on South Carolina’s first radio station for gays and lesbians.

Smith told he received complaints from constituents who have children at both schools. He said when they or their students objected to the books' content, they were told they could not read an alternative book.

“The universities were basically telling these parents, we don’t care if you have a problem with the books that your children are going to have to read,” Smith said.

Smith said he had several meetings with school officials to try to resolve the issue, but they refused to offer an alternative or allow more than what he called a “one-sided debate.” He said he understands the importance of academic freedom, but “all freedom comes with a responsibility."

“I appreciate the issue of freedom and academic freedom and very much support that, but in this case it was very irresponsibly exercised,” he said.

Democratic state Rep. James Smith introduced amendments that would reverse the cuts, but both failed. James Smith said in a statement to he is committed to restoring the funding because “academic freedom needs to be preserved.”

"Book banning and censorship offends the most fundamental values we hold dear as Americans,” he said. “Silencing opinions we disagree with is counter to everything institutions of higher learning stand for.”

However, Garry Smith says cutting off the funding is not censorship. He says he never ordered the universities to ban the book, but asked they either offer an alternative book or allow a fair debate on the issue.

“There was no attempt to do that,” he said.

In response to the controversy, the College of Charleston’s president said the school has the right to introduce controversial ideas to students, adding their students are adults whom the school treats as such.

“Any legislative attempt to tie institutional funding to what books are taught, or who teaches them, threatens the credibility and reputation of all South Carolina public universities,” President George Benson said in a statement.

The USC-Upstate’s English department also defended the selection of "Out Loud."

“We recognized that the book might invite some controversy, but we also understand that recognizing the gay and lesbian population in the United States is a contemporary civil rights issue,” the department said in a statement.

The executive director of the publishing company behind “Out Loud” said her company has been “surprised and disturbed” over the outrage the book. Betsy Teter told she invites anyone who has a problem with the book to read it.

“It is a terrific overview about how ordinary people are dealing with the civil rights issue of our time,” she said, “and I think if college students cannot read and discuss the civil rights issue of our time there is something way wrong.”