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State book regulation poses threat to freedom, advocates say

"As expressed by students, parents, educators, librarians and experts on free expression, these proposed regulations pose a threat to the freedom to read, to the detriment of students across South Carolina."


June 7, 2024  | Free speech advocates are warning state legislators that hundreds of books, including literary classics like “The Handmaid's Tale,” could soon vanish from South Carolina’s public school libraries.  Why?  There’s a new S.C. Department of Education regulation set to take effect  June 25. 

The regulation would bar books and materials that contain "depictions of sexual conduct," as defined by the state’s obscenity statute, from public school classrooms and libraries. It would also give the state Board of Education, rather than local school boards, final say on whether any book or material was in violation of that policy and should be removed from schools statewide.

In response, publishers, free speech groups and nearly 400 American authors are calling on the legislature to block the regulation that they call a “book ban” before it automatically becomes law by default because the legislature didn’t take it up earlier this year.

"We, the undersigned advocacy organizations, publishers, and authors, are writing with grave concern about proposed regulations that will lead to the removal of books and literature across South Carolina’s public schools," the coalition  wrote to lawmakers in a June 3 open letter

"As expressed by students, parents, educators, librarians and experts on free expression, these proposed regulations pose a threat to the freedom to read, to the detriment of students across South Carolina."

The open letter was organized by PEN America, a free speech organization that has advocated on behalf of writers since 1922. Publishers that signed the letter included Hachette Book Group, MacMillan Publishers, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, and Sourcebooks.

‘So vague it could be used against almost any book’

Greenville resident and children’s book author Jessica Khoury signed the letter.

“This regulation is really concerning to me, both as an author and as a parent with a daughter in the South Carolina public school system,” Khoury said in a Thursday interview. “It’s an assault on her right to a full and comprehensive education.”

Asked if she’s worried about the fate of her own books, which include titles such as “The Ruby Code” and the Mystwick School series, Khoury said no, but added many books could be at risk.

“The language in this regulation is so vague, it could be used against almost any book,” she said.

As an example of how easily that can happen, Khoury pointed to Iowa, where The Des Moines Register reports that a vaguely  worded law has led to the removal of more than 3,000 books from school libraries since 2023, including classics like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”

S.C. Department of Education spokesman Jason Raven said the department planned to offer more clarity on the regulation in the near future.

“The department is confident in the work of the State Board of Education and looks forward to providing clear, collaborative guidance to districts on implementation procedures whenever the regulation becomes final.” 

Limited options after legislative mix-up

Under South Carolina law, the General Assembly has 120 days to review and vote on proposed regulations before they become law. If the legislature fails to act in that time period, the regulation goes into effect automatically.

Typically with a controversial regulation,, the legislature would take one of two steps to avoid automatic approval: either vote on the regulation prior to the mid-May end-of-session date, or vote to freeze the approval clock until the legislature returns for its next regular session the following January.

For reasons that are still unclear, neither s happened. As a result, the regulation is set to become law without legislative approval on June 25.

In the days since the legislative mix-up became apparent, several lawmakers have made their displeasure clear. But at this point, only a two-thirds vote of the legislature or a voluntary withdrawal of the regulation by state Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver could prevent its taking effect.

And that’s precisely what some senators and House members say must now happen.

“Regulations proposed by agencies should go into effect only after being vetted by the legislature,” Beaufort Republican Sen. Tom Davis told Statehouse Report. “Superintendent Weaver should withdraw [the regulation] and resubmit it in January 2025. 

“If she hasn’t done that by the time the legislature reconvenes on June 18 to take up the budget, then the 2024 sine die resolution should be amended to prevent it from automatically going into effect later this summer.”

The so-called “sine die” resolution sets the allowed agenda for any special sessions that take place after the legislature’s legally-mandated May adjournment. It can only be amended by a two-thirds supermajority vote in both chambers.

Charleston Democratic Rep. Spencer Wetmore agrees the regulation needs a full vetting from the legislature, at which point she believes major changes will have to be made.

“I was looking at a sample AP Literature exam and over half the books covered would be banned under this standard,” Wetmore said. “That’s a problem.”

Ultimately, Wetmore said, the legislature will have to act to address three basic issues regarding the regulation: a lack of transparency in the process due to insufficient vetting, the one-size-fits-all statewide standard that preempts local community standards, and finally, the sheer number of books the regulation would disallow. 

“Either they’re going to have to intentionally misapply their own standard,” she said of the state Board of Education, “or they’re going to be banning an awful lot of books.”