South Carolina lawmakers have reduced the allocations to the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate because the lawmakers object to the inclusion of several “gay-themed” books in the institutions’ common required readings for their first-year students. The College of Charleston was docked $52,000, the amount spent on copies of Fun Home, and the University of South Carolina Upstate was docked $17,000, the amount spent on copies of Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio.
Fun Home is a graphic memoir written by Alison Bechdel, the creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In addition to attracting much attention for provocatively extending the graphic novel to the genre of the memoir, the book received critical praise for its treatment of the difficulties in growing up in an environment not only pointedly unsympathetic to non-heterosexual gender identities and sexual orientations but also not especially nourishing of heterosexual relationships. A New York Times bestseller in 2006, the book was included in a number of “best-of” lists for the year and the decade, and it was nominated for a number of prestigious awards.
Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio is an anthology put together by Ed Madden, who hosts a weekly gay-themed radio talk show that airs in Columbia, South Carolina. One of South Carolina’s most notable young poets, Madden has also produced noteworthy scholarship on contemporary poetry. He has served as the president of the American Conference of Irish Studies, Southern Region, and as the president of the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement.
In short, neither of these books can be described as a hastily or poorly considered selection—unless your ideological perspective is so rigid that you think that any exposure to gay or lesbian writing poses a threat to your sanctity of mind.
Just as obviously, when a state legislature begins to oversee the reading assignments given to college students and then to penalize institutions financially for selections that they do not approve of, these actions constitute more than a major attack on academic freedom; they are a symptom of a much broader distortion of or disregard for freedom of thought and expression.
Meanwhile, at the University of South Carolina, the president of the College Republicans has attracted the attention of Fox News with very vocal complaints about a textbook being used in a course on social policy. The assertion is that Introduction to Social Work & Social Welfare: Critical Thinking Perspectives includes pointed criticisms of policies pursued by the Reagan administration, presenting characterizations of those policies as “sexist” and “disdain[ful] of the poor.” Perhaps such characterizations do reflect a political bias, but I am not sure how any book on social policy could avoid any bias—could avoid any political judgments—and still say anything meaningful about social policy. Furthermore, I lived through the Reagan years, and his administration seemed quite vocal and proud of the ways in which it was shredding the social safety nets created as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the ways in which it was challenging the progressive social and cultural attitudes that were outgrowths of the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
More currently, the complaints about this book are all too consistent with complaints by politicians on the Far Right that the mainstream media is distorting their records by straightforwardly representing their records—complaints that characterizations of their voting records that echo how they themselves talk about their votes to their most ideologically extreme supporters somehow constitute a distortion of their records. For instance, they deride the use of the phrase “war on women” to describe their failure to support workplace and wage protections for women and their attacks not just on abortion rights but on affordable access to contraception. But those votes, or their efforts to block those votes, are typically the first things that they themselves choose to highlight very loudly and very proudly in public meetings with their constituents.
In this same vein, the legislators and students at the forefront of the complaints in South Carolina insist that what is occurring in their state is not an attack on academic freedom and does not constitute any sort of censorship. Instead, they are simply defending “values” and the students’ right to decide what constitutes an affront to their political beliefs and to insist that it be eliminated from the curriculum: that is, that this sort of censorship protects their own freedom of thought and expression outweighs the fact that it requires the suppression of others’ freedom of thought and expression.
To its credit, the University of South Carolina’s administration has expressed a position much more protective of academic freedom: “Our faculty and academic programs are free to select texts for their courses and our students are encouraged to raise questions, challenge convention, and develop their own ideas.”
I actually think that the administration gave a politically effective turn to that position when they then added: “We are pleased to see this class has inspired a lively conversation, much like President Reagan did when he spoke to a crowd of 9,000 on our Horseshoe in 1983.”