A crisis grows in South Carolina

Between Fall 2021 and Spring 2023, there were 128 book bans across the Palmetto State. But while South Carolina lags behind Texas and Florida in terms of the number of book bans, it’s poised to get worse.

A restrictive and ill-conceived proposed regulation from the South Carolina Department of Education is up for approval by the state legislature that would subject books to a state-level “test” to determine if the materials are “age appropriate”. If passed, it has the potential to make it easier to ban books across the state.

If the South Carolina legislators pushing these regulations paid attention, they’d see that creating further pathways to remove books has consistently been a disaster – leading both to ideologically motivated bans by vocal individuals and to schools culling their own collections en masse out of fear. By attempting to manipulate existing definitions of obscenity to censor educational content, these policies frequently have a latent effect of disproportionately censoring LGBTQ+ books and books with BIPOC characters or themes of race and racism.

One such instance of mass censorship has already happened in South Carolina, in Beaufort County. In 2022, two individuals sent a list of 97 books to the district without individual challenge forms. The board responded by immediately pulling all the listed books for review, against its own challenge policy, effectively revoking students’ access to nearly 100 titles during the months it took the board to decide which books to ban permanently. 


What are the proposed regulations?

The South Carolina Board of Education recently passed a policy, Reg. 43-170, that could make it easier to regulate and restrict content in school and classroom libraries. The regulations previously utilized language from federal and broadcast TV regulations, a practice that advocacy organizations and professional library associations alike have criticized. Concerns about this approach stem from the risk of First Amendment violations and, further, the incongruence between the consumption of film and television and literature.

The regulations currently propose a “test” to determine if books and other educational materials are “age and developmentally appropriate” and “aligned with the purpose of South Carolina’s instructional program.” State Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver has claimed that the regulations “simply [refer] back to a long-standing South Carolina code that has been there for a long time that specifically addresses and identifies sexually explicit materials.” If that’s the case, why bother proposing an additional test?

In most states, book challenges are largely handled at the district level. These regulations would put much of the book challenge and removal process in the hands of the state government. South Carolina advocates have pointed out that giving the state the final say on book bans would effectively revoke local control over these processes. South Carolina’s plan would enforce restrictive standards across a wide array of diverse communities throughout South Carolina, by creating an appeals process that allows the State Board of Education to overturn district decisions to retain challenged books. In other words, these regulations would hinder students’ right to read, supercharging book bans across the state and overriding nearly all local control. 

Before going into effect, the regulations must be approved by the state legislature, something that may not happen before the end of the current legislative session. Still, multiple legislators have expressed clear interest in picking the issue up again later this year, if the regulations stall.

In a recent interview, South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver said these regulations are “in no way infringing on anyone’s First Amendment rights to speech or to access materials that they want their children to access.” However, multiple lawsuits on First Amendment grounds have been launched in other states against similar restrictions on “sexually explicit” content in books.


What else is up in SC?

It’s not just the First Amendment Weaver’s in conflict with. She’s also recommended South Carolina schools disregard the newly-released regulations for Title IX of the federal Higher Education Act, which say that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

And this isn’t the first time Weaver has targeted libraries. In 2023, she forced the state to cut ties with the South Carolina Association of School Librarians, prompting the director of SCASL to resign. Weaver claimed the organization was using “hyperbolic rhetoric” around book bans, thus creating a “hostile environment” with the SC Department of Education.

More generally, South Carolina has been promoting additional concerning state-level regulations for a while. A proposed obscenity bill in 2023 and a proposed book rating bill this year would both have resulted in increased book bans. And between 2021 and 2023, South Carolina repeatedly renewed an educational gag order budget amendment that restricted the teaching of certain concepts related to race and sex.


Long story short:

The recently proposed regulations would be the latest in a series of setbacks for South Carolina’s public education system. It suggests a government agenda that prioritizes politicized and hyperbolic rhetoric over what should truly matter: students’ freedoms to read and to learn. Research has shown that when students’ access to literature is restricted, students are likely to show less interest in reading, not more. Superintendent Weaver claims the South Carolina Department of Education is promoting an “intense focus on literacy.” If that were true, they should be putting more books into the hands of South Carolina students, not fewer.