SC House votes to penalize colleges for gay-themed books

ashain@thestate.comMarch 10, 2014 

Students walk outside the Horseshoe on the University of South Carolina campus.

ANDREW SHAIN — ashain@thestate.com

The $70,000 in money taken away from two colleges for assigning gay-themed books is a minuscule part of South Carolina’s $24 billion budget next year. But an effort to restore the money took up a majority of the first day of deliberations over the state’s spending plan in the S.C. House Monday.

Amendments sponsored by the House’s minority Democrats to give back $52,000 to the College of Charleston and $17,142 to the University of South Carolina-Upstate – the cost of the reading programs – were rejected soundly by near 2-to-1 margins in the GOP-controlled House.

The ongoing controversy over the book choices has led to a national debate over the role of government in publicly funded colleges.

Both schools said they have revised their policies for choosing freshman reading books to include more review and input after the dust-up.

Advocates of restoring the money, stripped out in a House budget committee, said college students are adults who go to college to get different experiences than they receive at home.

“Are we saying that we don’t trust the students in the state to expose them to something they have not seen before or expose them to an ideology that may be foreign to them?” asked state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.

Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, a S.C. National Guard major who served a tour in Afghanistan, said soldiers might not be reading the books in question. But “Dad-gummit they’re fighting for our students to have (that opportunity).”

Democrats weren’t the only ones expressing concerns about the House’s action.

Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, a retired Clemson University teacher, worried about censorship and micromanaging.

“We’re saying, ‘This is what you’re going to do and if you don’t, we’re going to punish you,’” he said.

But Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, who spearheaded efforts to cut the schools’ funding, said the books – “Fun Home,” chosen by the College of Charleston, and “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” chosen at USC Upstate – do not reflect the community standards of S.C. taxpayers.

Garry Smith’s request to show pages from “Fun Home” in the House chamber during the debate was rejected by House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

“It’s not appropriate to put up in this room, but we’ll give it to 18-year-olds?” asked Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville.

Garry Smith said the College of Charleston bought twice as many books as needed for freshmen. Students were told to give away extras to friends, he said.

A college spokesman said the school bought the extra copies of the book to give to faculty and staff.

Lawmakers are not done trying to punish the schools for their actions, which some legislators think crossed lines of community decency.

The House is expected to consider a budget amendment Tuesday that would have the state set aside $1 million from each public college’s state money until they ban using “pornographic content” in classes and requiring any students to take a class that includes a nude model.

The amendment from state Rep. Mac Toole, R-Lexington, does not define “pornographic content.” He said most people understand the definition.

Toole’s amendment also would require colleges to start courses on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights before the money is released.

A 90-year-old state law requires S.C. colleges to teach the Constitution and other founding documents. But the law needs updating to be enforced.

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