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SC legislators to state universities: Assign gay material, see your money cut

By John Newsome, CNN
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Sun March 9, 2014
"I think the university has to be reasonable and sensible to the feelings and beliefs of their students. That was totally ignored here. I was trying to hold the university accountable," Rep. Garry Smith told CNN.
  • A legislative effort is underway in South Carolina to reduce state money for two colleges
  • Freshman assignments at the schools included gay-themed material
  • The legislator who proposed the cuts says his supporters "appreciate me taking a stand"
  • An opposing lawmaker says politicians don't want to face backlash from conservative voters

(CNN) -- Some state legislators in South Carolina want to teach a lesson -- to two of the state's public universities.

The legislators want to reduce funding for the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate because the schools assigned materials to students that dealt with homosexual themes.

The state House of Representatives is preparing to vote this week on a budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year that would strip the College of Charleston of $52,000 and the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg of $17,162.

The cuts are a fraction of the universities' proposed state funding for next year -- College of Charleston is set to receive $20 million and USC Upstate $9.5 million.

But the proposed cuts, despite being small portions of the schools' overall budgets, have drawn outrage from students, faculty, and even some alumni from both institutions. Many have taken their complaints to a website created to protest the cuts, and hundreds of individuals have posted, expressing their disapproval.

"I am a gay USC Upstate faculty member and a proud CofC alumnus...and SC is my home too. I won't stand by and let my academic freedom AND my civil rights be devalued," one post read.

The situation stems from freshman assignments at both schools.

Last summer, the College of Charleston provided incoming freshmen with a memoir, "Fun Home," in which the author deals with coming out as a lesbian. The University of South Carolina Upstate, meanwhile, assigned "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," which features an account of South Carolina's first gay and lesbian radio show.

Rep. Garry Smith, a Republican from Simpsonville who proposed the cuts in the state House Ways and Means committee, says he heard of the assignments after receiving an e-mail of concern from a constituent whose 17-year-old daughter was bound for the College of Charleston.

Smith contacted the college's board of trustees, inquiring if there were options for students "offended" by the subject matter. He says the school's administration told him there were no options.

"I think the university has to be reasonable and sensible to the feelings and beliefs of their students. That was totally ignored here. I was trying to hold the university accountable," Smith told CNN.

"Their stance is 'Even if you don't want to read it, we'll shove it down your throat.' It's not academic freedom -- it's academic totalitarianism."

The College of Charleston says that all of its more than 2,000 incoming freshmen do receive a copy of "Fun Home" as part of the school's "College Reads!" program, but that the memoir is not required reading. If a faculty member assigned the book in class and a student was offended, the students could move to another section where the book was not assigned, according to the school.

USC Upstate assigned "Out Loud" to its more than 1,100 freshman as summer reading for English 101, but noted that students could take the class in their second year if they chose to do so.

The president of the College of Charleston, P. George Benson, said in a statement to CNN that a university education must include a forum for students to engage controversial ideas, and that the looming budget cuts would undermine the school's integrity.

"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," Benson said.

Smith, meanwhile, pointed out that the cuts from both universities are the exact costs of those two specific reading programs, and that the dollar amount for the programs, on which the cuts were based, was provided by the universities themselves.

So far, there is no indication that momentum to pass the budget, and the cuts, is slowing down. The 2014-2015 state budget has already cleared the Higher Education subcommittee, as well as the House Ways & Means committee, where it passed 20-1.

Ways and Means committee member Rep. B.R. Skelton, a Republican and former professor at Clemson University, tried to reverse course by proposing an amendment to restore funds to both universities. It was voted down in the committee 13-10.

"I feel that as a legislative body, it's not our place to introduce social issues and punish or reward someone for what we like or what we don't like," Skelton told CNN.

"I have serious problems with censorship. We don't need to go down that slippery slope of taking retribution for content."

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orange County, also opposed the budget cuts but she said the amendment to restore funding was voted down because a number of the committee members didn't want to face backlash from conservative voters in South Carolina.

"That vote was not a vote of conviction, but a vote of self-preservation to protect themselves from a primary challenger," she said.

If the proposed cuts are approved by the full House this week as part of the larger budget, the budget bill will then move to the state Senate. If it passes there, it will go to the desk of Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican.

The governor's office did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

Rep. Smith says many people have written and called him supporting the proposed cuts.

"They appreciate me taking a stand," he said.

"I anticipate it will be a very active debate (in the full House)," Smith added.

"We'll see how it comes out."

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