Six college professors and two teachers’ unions are suing Idaho over a law they say violates their First Amendment rights by criminalizing the teaching and classroom discussion of pro-abortion positions.
The No Public Funds for Abortion Act of 2021 prohibits government contracts or transactions with abortion providers, and also prohibits public workers from promoting abortion, advising for abortion, or referring someone to abortion services. Public officials who break the law can be charged with misuse of public funds, a criminal offense, and can be fired, fined, and ordered to repay the funds they are accused of misusing.
The law is “at once comprehensive and unclear” and “straitjackets” the intellectual leaders of Idaho’s public universities, the educators, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, wrote in the lawsuit.
The case was brought by five University of Idaho professors who teach philosophy, political science, American literature and journalism, and a social work professor at Boise State University. Other plaintiffs include the Idaho Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty at UI, BSU and Idaho State University, and the University of Idaho Faculty Federation.
Both the University of Idaho and Boise State University last year warned staff against referring students to abortion providers or telling them how to get emergency contraception because of the law. The law also raised questions about the potential impact on other public officials, including journalists from public media outlets.
The educators say the law is vague and doesn’t define exactly what it means to promote or advocate abortion. As a result, a philosophy professor dropped an entire module on human reproduction from her biomedical ethics course because she feared prosecution, the lawsuit alleges.
Others have significantly altered their course content in a variety of subjects such as sociology, law, human reproduction, and women in the media, pulling out reading materials, shortening lectures, and refusing to provide meaningful feedback on some student research and writing.
Earlier in the year, officials at Lewis-Clark State College censored several artworks from an exhibit at the school that focused on health issues. The artists were told the works were being removed from the exhibition because the administration feared they might be violating the new law.
The purpose of public universities is to encourage an open and meaningful exchange of ideas on issues of social, legal and political importance, ACLU-Idaho wrote in the lawsuit.
“In Idaho, the legislature has ruled that these ideals no longer apply to academic inquiry into abortion – one of today’s most pressing social, moral and political issues,” the ACLU wrote.
But the Idaho Family Policy Center, a conservative anti-abortion organization that helped draft and promote the law, contradicted the educators’ claims. One of the aims of the law was to prevent university health centers from prescribing abortion drugs or referring students to abortion providers, the center’s president, Blaine Conzatti, said in a press release.
Conzatti called the lawsuit an “unfounded legal challenge.”
“The No Public Funds For Abortion Act simply does not violate academic speech protected by the First Amendment, including classroom discussions of abortion-related issues,” he said.
The educators are asking a federal judge to rule the law unconstitutional as it applies to academic institutions and prohibit the state from enforcing the law with respect to statements pro- or pro-abortion.