Idaho professors say they change syllabi, self-censor abortion over fears of prosecution

A union leader said the law has had a "chilling" effect on professors' speech.

August 11, 2023, 1:19 PM

Fearful of facing criminal prosecution and up to 14 years in prison, some Idaho professors say they have altered syllabi, changed coursework and scrubbed their online profiles of their research to exclude any discussion of abortion due to a state law.

The No Public Funds for Abortion Act makes it a crime in Idaho to use public funds to "promote" or "counsel in favor of" abortion. The law has been interpreted by some as prohibiting all discussion that could promote abortion, including teaching, discussion and academic research at state universities, according to an ACLU attorney and president of a union of professors.

"I'm not aware of any prosecutions that the state has brought against academics. But the law itself hasn't been around for very long -- it's only two years old -- and it has had an enormous chilling effect. Just the impact of the law itself has forced professors to essentially self-censor," Scarlet Kim, an ACLU attorney, told ABC News.

Now, six professors at state universities and two teaching unions have filed a lawsuit against state officials, arguing the law violates the First and 14th Amendments. The suit, filed Tuesday, claims that the law violates the First Amendment rights of professors by criminalizing all academic speech that might favor abortion and that it violates the 14th Amendment's due process clause by being unconstitutionally vague, forcing individuals to guess what speech it prohibits.

"There's been no issuance of any guidance whatsoever from the state and that's really problematic because the language [of the law] itself is really broad and vague. So it's really not clear how far it sweeps," Kim, the ACLU's lead attorney in the suit, said.

PHOTO: The Idaho State Capitol building, July 11, 2023, in Boise, Ida.
The Idaho State Capitol building, July 11, 2023, in Boise, Ida.
Kirby Lee/AP

Idaho is one of 15 states that has ceased nearly all abortion services under a strict ban. As part of another case by the ACLU challenging the ban, a judge stopped implementation of a clause that had prevented physicians from providing counseling or recommendations for out-of-state abortion care.

Martin Orr, the president of the Idaho Federation of Teachers -- a union comprised of faculty at the University of Idaho, Boise State University and Idaho State University that is a plaintiff in the suit -- told ABC News that faculty are doing everything from dropping readings to whole sections of classwork that they had previously taught.

"People are changing and not pursuing certain lines of research that they would pursue otherwise, so it is having impacts across campus for faculty and students," Orr said.

"The discussion needn't be on abortion specifically, but if you're having a conversation about the Supreme Court and things are going to bounce from there to Dobbs to abortion and then you have to tell the class, 'We can't go there because I'm not sure if this would violate the law or not,'" Orr said.

"Classroom discussions are never easy when it's a polarizing subject, but the threat of criminal penalty hanging over your head, this is especially hard to navigate," Orr said.

Kim told ABC News that the law captures all varieties of academic work.

"I think it's fair to say that the official language of the statute clearly captures all varieties of academic speech, including course content, classroom discussions, lectures and academic scholarship. And the universities and their lawyers read the statute that way," Kim told ABC News.

"We started hearing from professors across Idaho's public universities that they were extremely fearful of the law, because it levies really severe criminal penalties for violations of the act -- up to 14 years in prison -- and that they were, as a result, changing their academic speech, basically they were censoring themselves in a variety of ways," Kim continued.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, a philosophy professor who taught a bioethics course, has completely stripped a module that covered human reproduction and is worried abortion could still come up in other topics like genetics, Kim said.

"She typically assigned readings about abortion that would present philosophers' viewpoints on either side of the debate. Because of the law, she's completely stripped out that entire module from her curriculum," Kim said.

A political science professor who is part of the suit and teaches U.S. policy and policymaking told students they could not cover reproductive rights as a topic because of the law, Kim said.

"She had actually prepared a lecture about abortion policy, including the presentation of material that discusses public opinion across different states, and sort of a disjuncture between public opinion and restrictions on abortion in some of those states, and she decided that based on the law, she could no longer lecture on that topic, and that she wasn't going to allow class discussion on that topic for fear of prosecution," Kim said.

"She basically stripped that lecture out and told the students, they would have to pick a different topic to discuss," Kim said.

PHOTO: Demonstrators attend an abortion rights rally outside the Idaho State Capitol in Boise, Ida. on May 14, 2022.
Demonstrators attend an abortion rights rally outside the Idaho State Capitol in Boise, Ida. on May 14, 2022.
Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A professor of social work, also part of the suit, who covers domestic and international ethics, including how to counsel clients, stopped sharing her work with students and tried to hide past research on access to abortion from her online profile, according to Kim.

"She no longer feels comfortable sharing her own work with her students. She no longer feels comfortable publicizing that work amongst her colleagues and on the university campus in the way that she would have in the past," Kim said.

"She's also basically kind of scrubbed her online profile of details about her academic scholarship. And that's had a huge impact on just her academic profile; it makes it difficult for people to understand that she's an expert on these issues, but she's just fearful that her work is going to be construed as violating the law," Kim said.

Kim said that abortion, because it is controversial, is very useful for teaching core critical thinking and analytical skills.

Orr, a sociology professor at Boise State University, said the alleged censorship is a disservice to students. Some students have even told professors they are upset over not being able to discuss abortion and that they feel their speech is being censored, Orr said.

"I'm not a specialist in reproductive rights, but certainly when I talk about contemporary politics or media, how does this stuff not come up?" Orr said. "Our students are not uninformed. They follow these debates, they want to talk about them, they want to understand better why people take that position."

"It really does a disservice to students when faculty feel like we're under threat. We can't really do our jobs, as well as we otherwise might," Orr said.

Idaho's attorney general's office and county prosecutors named in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.