A Republican Tennessee state senator says now that his idea to “cut off” funding to higher education was hyperbole, and not to be taken seriously. Kerry Roberts previously said he thought universities should be shut down for being a “liberal breeding ground.”
Roberts made the assertion on his eponymous radio show on Sept. 2, as he recounted his frustration with a woman who testified against a restrictive abortion bill, SB 1236, before the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee on Aug. 13. The bill, which seeks to ban abortion as soon as a woman knows she’s pregnant, is probably unconstitutional. But Roberts told CBS News before the hearing that that was the point.
Roberts hopes the measure’s passage will trigger a legal battle that will carry it to the Supreme Court to challenge precedents such as Roe v. Wade, a 1973 high court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. His legislative assistant subsequently confirmed his thinking to The Washington Post.
Although on his radio show he did not name the woman who testified, he appeared to refer to Cherisse Scott of the organization SisterReach, which advocates “for the reproductive autonomy of women and teens of color, poor and rural women, LGBTQ+, and gender nonconforming people and their families,” according to the organization’s website.
Scott, the only black woman to testify that day, got only partway through her prepared testimony before committee chairman Mike Bell (R) silenced her with his gavel and cut off her microphone. She had argued that restricting abortion rights would have implications far beyond reproductive issues, and would affect women and communities of color in terms of their health, economic standing and social mobility.
In his radio show, Roberts used Scott’s testimony as evidence of “the garbage being taught to our children” in institutions of higher learning.
“We got some woman in there who just goes off,” Roberts told his listeners. “And it’s all about … pick every, every liberal bit of indoctrination that you can get in a university setting today. Far left, I mean you’ve got all of these ‘intersectionalities’ and ‘white supremacy’ and ‘oppressive this’ and every buzzword in the liberal lexicon is being thrown at thrown at us by some woman who’s not even talking about the legal argument; she’s just going off on something.”
Roberts continued, “If there’s one thing that we can to do to save America today, it is to get rid of our institutions of higher education right now, and cut the liberal breeding ground off,” he shouted, before adding, “Good grief!”
“The stupid stuff that our kids are being taught is absolutely ridiculous, and this is a woman who is a product of higher education; she’s learned all of this stuff that flies in the face of what we stand for as a country,” he continued.
“And here we are as legislators paying for this garbage to be taught to our children. And we’re not doing anything about it, in all these red states across America, we let it exist, and it’s absolutely unbelievable,” he said, before blaming abortion on higher education. “This is the price we pay, the murder of over half a million innocent lives every year with people sitting there justifying it to their last breath,” he said.
On Monday, a video circulated by the website the Tennessee Holler and an Associated Press report on his remarks about cutting off funding for higher education stirred up a social media storm.
In response, Roberts stated on social media that his remarks had been “hyperbole” and were “not to be taken literally,” and that his listeners would “understand the humor and hyperbole of it."
In a statement to The Post on Tuesday, Roberts reiterated this point but added, “I stand behind my general critique of liberal arts education in America one hundred percent.”
The statement continued: “Many higher education institutions have unquestionably become liberal breeding grounds where radical values and hatred for America are fomented. It’s time for lawmakers to question the efficacy of higher education in America, meaningless majors, liberal bias, and intolerance of traditional values and conservative points of view.”
The Associated Press reports that Roberts voted for a $38.5 billion budget earlier this year that included funding for colleges and universities. His official state Senate page says he received a bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb University, a Christian liberal arts college.
In a video live stream of the radio show, Roberts was not laughing as he delivered his comments but, rather, grew increasingly agitated.
Scott’s Aug. 13 testimony ended with her being escorted out of the state Senate by the sergeant at arms, after Bell ordered a recess. Video shows her continuing to speak as state senators walk away from the dais, while some women in the audience stand and applaud. Security officials flank Scott, who remains seated.
“They wisely kept their hands off her, because I guarantee you there would have been a lawsuit, or there would have been some international incident, because she was, after all, a woman of color, as if that mattered to any of us!” Roberts told his listeners last week.
“Despite the fact that she’s chastising all of these white people sitting in front of her, let me tell you something, nobody gave me the job. I got elected by the people l represent,” he continued. “And if they want to elect someone with a different color of skin, then more power to them, but I’m the one that ran for office, and there was not a single person of color in my race. Don’t blame me!”
In an essay for Vice, Scott said that the legislators had asked that speakers submit an outline of their statement in advance, and that they would therefore know what she would say. She was cut off anyway.
“I timed my statement when I wrote it to make sure it came in around 10 minutes — I knew better, she wrote. “And I knew there was a possibility they wouldn’t let me finish. By the time I got to the part of my statement about white supremacist ideology in Tennessee, they stopped me.
“Certain people still don’t give a damn about my rights because even 400 years later, they don’t see me as a human being,” she wrote of her decision to speak about other social justice issues during her testimony. “Abortion is a big piece of this struggle, but it’s not the whole piece. We need to understand how these things are connected.”
Heather Shumaker, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, who also testified against SB 1236 that day, told The Post in August that “people of color, people of low-income jobs, people who live in rural areas, people who already have kids … are the people who are going to be hit the hardest by this kind of bill.”