In Idaho, a public university abruptly cancelled dozens of diversity-related classes as lawmakers advanced a budget cutting funding, threatened further cuts, and added provisions barring Idaho universities from using state funding to support “social justice” activities, clubs, events, or organizations.
‘[A] say on what is taught’
The cancellation of the classes comes after more than a year of lawmakers’ efforts to rein in classes at Idaho universities and colleges. As one legislator explained last March, the goal was to “stop rubber-stamping these budgets” and instead threaten the universities’ funding as a way to “send the message that we do have a say on what is taught.”
This year, they are following through. The course cancellation followed the state’s joint budget committee cut of $409,000 from Boise State University’s budget and efforts to cut between $2,500,000 and $18,000,000 that goes to “social justice programming and critical race theory.” (The latter effort, which would have asked the legislature to return the budget to the committee, did not succeed, as the State Senate adopted the committee’s budget — the day after the courses were cancelled.)
The university’s response — and the context of the legislative pressure to curtail these courses — raises concerns that the response is focused on content, not conduct.
In addition to the $409,000 cut — which one lawmaker said “borders on censorship” — the budget problematically includes language barring any state university or college from using “appropriated funds” to “support social justice ideology student activities, clubs, events and organizations on campus.” This provision, which is likely unconstitutional, is a classic example of a law that would require the institutions to withhold funds from student organizations based on their viewpoints in direct contradiction to long standing precedents set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States. (For similar efforts, see our analysis of a proposal in New York to bar funding to student organizations that permit “hate speech.”)
Additionally, each Idaho state university is required to “submit a written report of its expenditures related to these activities,” and the State Board of Education is directed to “evaluate” the use of student activity fees for “activities, clubs and organizations focused on individual beliefs and values” in light of “the need for access, affordability, and choice.”
Against this backdrop comes last Tuesday’s cancellation of 52 diversity classes at Boise State. In a statement, the university said that it had “been made aware of a series of concerns, culminating in allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values.” A rumor that a student had recorded mistreatment during class and then circulated the video to lawmakers appears to have been false, as the university says the course cancellation followed “several complaints about the courses, not one specific incident.” Lawmakers also said they had not seen the video. The university has since hired a law firm to investigate the matter, but there is no set timeline for the completion of that investigation, and it is unlikely that the courses will resume this semester.
Boise State’s adult students have a right to be free from harassing conduct, but there is no right to be free from objectionable or offensive views or material.
Without knowing the details of what “series of concerns” and “allegations” have been raised, it is impossible to know whether the university’s response is appropriately tailored to the allegations. An educator who engages in harassment of students due to their beliefs or membership in a protected class finds no shelter in academic freedom. A university presented with credible allegations of harassment must take efforts to investigate and prevent that abuse — including, if necessary, through the suspension of a course or instructor.
Yet the university’s response — and the context of the legislative pressure to curtail these courses — raises concerns that the response is focused on content, not conduct. It is unlikely that the university’s 52 courses — which incorporate different themes or topics, ranging from folklore, to sports, to film, to censorship — have a common element that results in instructors harassing their students.
That, in any event, is consistent with the arguments raised by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit which has called on Idaho’s legislature to eliminate “social justice initiatives,” including “courses that are infused with social justice ideology” and “indoctrination majors,” such as gender studies, sociology, and history. The IFF argues that the mass suspension reflects not a “single rogue class where an isolated incident occurred,” but instead reflects the “systemic problem” of “the propagandizing and indoctrinating of students in a false and pernicious ideology, not their humiliation.”
If so, then the suspension represents not an effort to remediate harassing conduct, but the effectuation of censorship in response to legislative and public pressure. Contra one lawmaker’s assertion that the state’s pursestrings entitle the authorities to regulate “what is taught,” Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1957 — in the midst of legislative efforts to excise communism from universities — identified the “four essential freedoms” of the university: “to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”
Boise State’s adult students have a right to be free from harassing conduct, but there is no right to be free from objectionable or offensive views or material. To the contrary, faculty members must be free to present and discuss views that others may find objectionable, without interference from lawmakers, administrators, or the public.
In utilizing funding as a vehicle to pressure universities to limit what may be taught, lawmakers will cast an unacceptable chilling effect on academic freedom. Idaho’s legislature must abandon any attempt to pressure its educational institutions to change or restrict the content of courses. Being an effective steward of state resources does not mean shielding adult college students from views they might find offensive. It means preserving and defending the expressive and academic freedom rights of students and faculty, even when others find the exercise of those rights to be offensive.
For its part, Boise State must be transparent and expedient in addressing any credible complaint of harassment or inappropriate conduct. To these ends, FIRE has issued a public records request seeking copies of any complaints or credible allegations of misconduct. If there is no evidence of widespread discriminatory conduct, Boise State must restore the cancelled classes and clarify that discussion of diversity, social justice, critical race theory, and other issues objected to by the public or lawmakers is permitted. The institution should confirm that legislative pressure will not lead to discipline or cancellation of courses.
If your rights are imperiled at Boise State or elsewhere, please get in touch with FIRE.