COLUMBIA - A House budget proposal to cut $70,000 from two South Carolina universities for assigning gay-themed books to freshmen might not get much of a reception in the Senate.
The debate could come up in Senate Finance Committee, which will work this week to complete its budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But the subcommittee that writes the budget for public colleges didn't include the cuts in its recommendations. That panel's chairman, Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, made clear he believes the Legislature shouldn't micromanage universities' curriculum.
"I think that should be up to the presidents of the institution and the board of trustees which the General Assembly elects," said Courson, R-Columbia.
Republicans in the House pushed for the cuts - $17,162 from the University of South Carolina Upstate and $52,000 from the College of Charleston - as a way to punish the colleges for book selections they believe promote homosexuality. Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, is among senators who agree, saying universities should be held accountable as they assume parenting responsibilities over young adults who are "vulnerable to bad info."
Opponents argue such censorship endangers academic freedom and makes the budget discriminatory.
"This whole issue is pretty baffling to me that we're talking about something like this in the year 2014," said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, noting the students are adults.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has urged senators to restore the funding, calling it a First Amendment issue that threatens the quality of higher education in South Carolina.
"Politicians should not be censoring college reading assignments," said chapter director Victoria Middleton. "It's bad for academic freedom. It's bad for the free play of ideas in our democracy. Students should be able to learn all different points of view and perspective."
Rep. Garry Smith, who proposed the cuts, argues that freedom comes with responsibility, and the colleges were neither responsible nor responsive to legislators who approve their budgets. The Legislature sets policy, and the budget should be "reflective of the values and mindset of the citizens of the state," said Smith, R-Simpsonville.
The relatively small amounts being debated represent what the colleges spent on their reading programs. At the College of Charleston, this year's freshmen read the Alison Bechdel book, "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," which describes her childhood with a closeted gay father and her own coming out as a lesbian. USC Upstate assigned "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," referring to South Carolina's first gay and lesbian radio show, for a freshman course that included lectures and other out-of-classroom activities meant to spark discussions about the book.
The cuts wouldn't come from state money. Instead, they reduce what colleges can spend from their own revenue sources.
Hutto said such nitpicking is especially intolerable considering the Legislature's diminishing financial support to public universities.
Between 2007 and 2013, state funding fell from $38 million to $20 million at the College of Charleston and from $15 million to $8 million at USC Upstate. State budget designations now represent just 8 percent of the College of Charleston's total budget and 16 percent of USC Upstate's, according to the colleges.
"Some of the statements that representatives have made act as if we are entirely a state-funded institution when obviously that is not the case," said College of Charleston senior Jessica Dugan, who is president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance.