Recently, various students and faculty have expressed concerns with the REACH Act, claiming this act of political interference poses a threat to academic freedom in South Carolina. Fortunately for the students of this university, this claim is as bold as it is misleading.
Institutions of higher education are meant to teach you how to think, not what to think. As such, I fully agree that academic freedom is an important and integral component of any university.
However, this does not mean the government cannot have a legitimate role in places of learning. U.S. Supreme Court cases like Garcetti v. Ceballos and Brown v. Chicago Bd. of Education made it clear that public employees' speech, when expressed as part of their public duties, can be regulated.
The fact of the matter is that professors at the University of South Carolina are public employees and it is legitimate for the government to involve itself by ensuring students receive a proper education that covers America's foundational documents.
Increased scrutiny and monitoring from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education is not a threat to academic freedom, as clearly stated in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure:
"College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution ... As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances."
The ultimate question is not whether this was a legitimate exercise of governmental power, but rather if it was warranted. What was the reasoning behind the REACH Act?
Jameson Broggi, a USC alumnus of the 2014 class, is credited as a driving force behind the REACH Act. When asked what motivated Broggi to advocate for this bill, he said that he is grateful for this country and the freedoms that we have.
“For our country and for its citizens to continue to be free, students need to know the founding documents of our country where all our freedoms are written down, and therefore students should take a class on these founding documents. It was already the law," Broggi said. "I saw that the University of South Carolina was not following the law. So I helped enact the REACH Act to make that law stronger to see the law actually be enforced."
Broggi said that in 2014, then-President Harris Pastides called the previous version of the law "archaic" and said the university would adhere to the law if it was updated on terms that he provided. The state legislature accepted and added every suggestion he had proposed in the letter he wrote as a gesture of goodwill, according to Broggi.
So, not only is the REACH Act an extension of a previously existing law that our university was illegally ignoring, but it was written to appease Pastides.
Is our nation’s history something so frivolous and "archaic" that it can be ignored? South Carolina Rep. Garry Smith would disagree.
“Civics education is understanding what our representative republic stands for," Smith said. "An informed society is necessary and is also engaged in its own government."
Smith said teachers have the freedom to teach as they see fit.
"What the REACH Act does is basically say that ... there are certain things that are essential to a good civic education in South Carolina. There are essential documents and tenets of our representative republic and our system of government," Smith said.
The actions of some USC students shows that the university has not done a good job of providing the student body with a suitable civic education. The REACH Act may be able to help interactions between students expressing opposing views.
Last semester, a mask mandate protest took place outside Russell House and counter-protesters were seen harassing their peers and impeding their classmates' freedom of speech.
Some people were disturbed by the actions of the counter-protestors. Kim McMahon, the Director of the Russell House University Union, said the university does not condone their behavior.
"Do I condone dropping the F-bomb or throwing a finger? No," McMahon said.
Although such controversial behavior cannot be addressed through administration, an education on constitutional rights may help students understand that every member of our community is entitled to their right to protest.
"Education has a role, I think, in helping to solve many issues and I think also communication," McMahon said.
Reading the law and understanding the background of it helps to disprove the notion that this law poses any credible threat to our university.