FIRE demands University of Idaho retract policy limiting faculty speech on abortion | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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FIRE demands University of Idaho retract policy limiting faculty speech on abortion

University of Idaho Abortion Discussions

MOSCOW, Idaho, Sept. 27, 2022  — University administrators in Moscow, Idaho, are taking too many notes from the city’s Russian namesake. This mid-sized Idaho city is home to the University of Idaho, where implementation of a state law on abortion is chilling professors’ ability to speak on the topic. 

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression sent a letter to U of I officials warning that the university’s new policy regulating faculty speech about abortion is unconstitutional.

“Faculty members don’t shed their First Amendment rights at the classroom door,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. “It isn’t just misguided to keep faculty from speaking freely — it’s illegal.”

In implementing Idaho’s 2021 “No Public Funds for Abortion Act,” U of I announced its own restrictive policy last week, regulating faculty speech about abortion and contraception. The Sept. 23 policy memo requires faculty to not “promote or advocate in favor of abortion” or discuss “abortion or contraception” in classroom conversations unless they remain “neutral.” 

As FIRE’s letter explains, these restrictions are unlawful and will have a chilling effect on protected teaching and discussion. For example, per the restrictions, a philosophy professor discussing ethics and morality in the context of abortion or contraception cannot “advocate” one way or another, even as a devil’s advocate, during classroom conversations. A political science professor, likewise, must think twice about whether a public policy argument about abortion could be perceived as advocacy “in favor of abortion.” Law professors may run afoul of the policy by using teaching methods that employ hypothetical scenarios. The policy even manages to reach pro-life speech, as faculty must adhere to “neutrality” in teaching — no matter which side of the issue they wish to discuss. 

As a public university, U of I is bound by the First Amendment and cannot prevent its faculty from speaking freely about abortion or contraception in their research, publications, and pedagogically relevant classroom instruction. Nor can it force faculty to be “neutral” in the classroom, as these requirements burden faculty members’ ability to, for example, engage in devil’s advocacy or Socratic dialogue. As FIRE’s letter explains, the policy imposes an unconstitutional, viewpoint-discriminatory limitation on academic speech and instruction and must be retracted. 

“No statute can authorize a public university to censor pedagogically relevant classroom discussion,” Steinbaugh said. “Speech about abortion — legal or not — cannot be limited based on its viewpoint.”

FIRE commits to using every resource at its disposal to ensure this policy is not used to censor protected expression at U of I. Faculty members and students whose speech may be limited by this law — or any other — should contact FIRE.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

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