I’ve long criticized the S.C. Democratic Party for having, how shall I put it, a lack of balls. Too often they’ve sat idly by while their Republican overlords run roughshod over, well, everybody — you, me, and everybody we don’t owe money to.
Recently, the Dems were content to allow the far-right fundies in the House of Representatives drive the debate over the anti-LGBT funding cuts to the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate for handing out copies of two gay-oriented books to students, “Fun Home” and “Out Loud,” respectively.
Now House Democrats Leon Stavrinakis and Baraki Sellers opposed the measure, but, as I’ve argued, they were a little late to the game with their public outrage. That said, I applaud them for voting against the funding cuts to CofC and USC Upstate, even though their opposition struck me as initially timid. Both Stavrinakis and Sellers have been vocal since.
All of which is why I was surprised to see the sheer amount of chutzpah displayed by state Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg) in his support of academic freedom and in opposition to this nasty little bit of purityranny on the part of Palmetto State Taliban members Larry Grooms (R-Daniel Island), Garry Smith (R-Simpsonville), and Mike Fair (R-Greenville). Last week, Hutto took to the Senate floor and staged a four-hour-long filibuster to block the spending cut. Much to our shock, he succeeded. Bravo.
But the Talibanners aren’t so easily defeated. And so earlier this week, Grooms proposed a compromise that would allow CofC and USC Upstate to keep the funding, but would penalize them for distributing the two books by requiring them to use those funds to pay for classes on the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the like. Hutto, of course, opposed the measure, as did Charleston’s own Marlon Kimpson (D), presumably because they are in favor of academic freedom and not because they have a deep underlying hatred of the Bill of Rights.
Both Hutto and Kimpson bemoaned the fact that the state Legislature had spent so much time debating two books simply because they presented gay men and women as, well, human beings. Now, Grooms, Fair, and the rest will say they oppose the so-called pornographic elements in “Fun Home.” They’re liars. The sex scenes in question are about as titillating as a Depends undergarment commercial. Maybe Larry Grooms can jerk off to that, but I can’t.
During Tuesday’s debate, Kimpson in particular questioned why his fellow god-fearing legislators were more concerned with these two books and not the uninsured and the homeless in South Carolina. Hutto, meanwhile, argued that the actions of his fellow senators will dissuade the world’s leading companies — many of whom have exceedingly gay-friendly policies — from settling in the Palmetto State.
But alas, the efforts of our two Democratic champions were not enough to stop the troglodytes in the state Senate. The amendment passed, and CofC and USC Upstate may end up having to spend much needed money to teach college students something they’re already taught in grade school. Sigh.
The irony here is that Grooms, Fair, Smith, and the rest of their Taliband of Anti-gay Brothers either haven’t read the Constitution or they just skipped over the First Amendment, you know, the one that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Now, you could go full-States’ Rightard and claim that the First Amendment only prevents Congress from stifling free speech, but that’s not how the law has been applied and frankly that’s never going to change. The point is the Republicans in the South Carolina state Senate have made a move that could effectively ban a certain type of speech on college campuses.
And I’m not the only one who sees it that way. So does the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. But whereas I’ve only got a half-empty bottle of bourbon in my desk, they’ve got a team of lawyers.
In an official statement, the ACLU says:
We are disappointed in the Senate action, which undermines freedom of thought and expression as well as academic freedom in our state. While no one could oppose closer study of the Constitution and other founding documents of our democracy, today’s Senate action violates the spirit of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment guarantees that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. It rests on the principle that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society, or some part of it, finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
Protecting academic freedom should matter to all of us, not only to college professors. If South Carolina students are to become contributing citizens in the 21st century, they must have freedom to inquire, think critically, and evaluate. If they only read books that confirm or reinforce what they already believe, they cannot learn.
Students in South Carolina are already free to agree or disagree with what they read and hear in a university setting. The budget amendment approved today by the South Carolina Senate is a step backwards for higher education and academic freedom in our state.
Now, I don’t know if the ACLU plans to go any further. Frankly, it’s too early too tell if they will even need to. After all, Gov. Nikki Haley has already let it be known that she doesn’t believe in the funding cut. While she didn’t exactly proclaim her support of “Fun Home” and “Out Loud,” she noted that these were matters should be decided by the two schools in question, not legislators. So there’s still some hope yet the Talibanners will be defeated.
In the meantime, Larry Grooms can retire to the Statehouse men’s room and watch Depends commercials on his smart phone.