COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A Democratic senator called his colleagues homophobic Wednesday for trying to punish two South Carolina universities that assigned gay-themed books to incoming freshmen.
The Senate twice refused to kill an amendment cutting $70,000 from the public colleges' own revenue sources.
Debate will continue Thursday as the Senate seeks to wrap up work on its budget plan. The amendment would copy what the House did in its spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1, cutting $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate and $52,000 from the College of Charleston for their book selections.
Supporters of the amendment described the book "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic," assigned in Charleston, as pornographic. Much of the debate centered on a single drawing in the illustrated book that depicted two women having sex. Senators seeking the cuts accused the colleges of forcing an agenda on teenagers. The book describes the author's childhood with a closeted gay father, who commits suicide, and her own coming out as a lesbian.
Sen. Brad Hutto repeatedly asked his colleagues what they found offensive. The only reason it's an issue is because homosexuality is involved, he said.
"Very few people recognize this book as pornography. Maybe in here. Maybe a bunch of old guys, but that's not how the world turns these days," said Hutto, D-Orangeburg. "You're saying we're going to punish a university for daring to expose an adult — these are adults, this is not kindergarten — to a subject matter you find uncomfortable that they do not. This body has a hang-up on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular."
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said it's never appropriate to use tax dollars to fund pornography. The books were actually bought with student fees, but Grooms said those are still university funds.
USC Upstate raised legislators' ire by assigning "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," referring to South Carolina's first gay and lesbian radio show. Out-of-classroom activities included a lecture titled "How to be a lesbian in 10 days or less."
Hutto said it's silly to think that's a recruitment tool.
"Y'all miss humor, sarcasm, irony — you're missing the whole boat," he said. "This notion that we won't allow for a free and open discussion on our university campuses is really mindboggling."
Asked if he realized "Fun Home" has won numerous awards, GOP Sen. Tom Corbin of Travelers Rest said Adolf Hitler was once highly acclaimed too.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler said the cuts are the only way the Legislature can show its displeasure. The amounts are so minuscule, they don't even qualify as a legislative wrist slap, but they're important as a legislative frown, he said.
"I think we have their attention but we must do this to show them we're serious about higher education, and to have academic independence carries with it academic responsibility," said Peeler, R-Gaffney.
The votes crossed party lines.
Senate President Pro Tem John Courson argued any further cut is too much following years of dwindling financial support to public colleges. The Senate budget plan that received tentative approval Wednesday designates $498 million to South Carolina's colleges, which is $25 million more than the House plan. But that's still $250 million less than in 2007, when 40,000 fewer students were enrolled, he said.
"I do not want to see us cut another dime from higher education," said Courson, R-Columbia.
He also said the Legislature shouldn't micromanage or censor universities' curriculum.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he attended the sold-out play based on the book, which the author brought to Charleston last month, and found nothing offensive.
"We are micromanaging what our colleges and universities are supposed to do and that is put books on a book list that will challenge the reader," he said, adding that cutting funds because of the universities' book choices "sends a dangerous message."
"I don't care how much funding it is. Where are all the freedom fighters? This is academic freedom."
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