Writing materials

Teaching and writing about abortion in Idaho (and elsewhere?)

“Academic freedom is no defense against violation of the law, and professors or others in charge of topics and class discussions must themselves remain neutral on the subject and may not lead or initiate discussions in violation of these prohibitions without risk of prosecution.”

It is from one E-mail from the General Counsel of the University of Idaho to university employees regarding state abortion laws, in particular a law 2021 prohibiting the use of public funds for abortions. Much of the email is about prohibiting university employees from encouraging, performing, or aiding in the provision of workplace abortions. But the email also includes advice on teaching abortion.

Professors are allowed, for example, to have “class discussions on abortion-related topics when limited to discussions and topics relevant to the class topic.” But in such discussions, there must be “instructor neutrality”. The Advocate General writes:

Class discussion on the subject should be approached with caution. While academic freedom supports classroom discussions of abortion-related topics, these should be limited to discussions and topics relevant to the class topic. The laws mentioned above, in particular those dealing with the promotion of abortion, counseling in favor of abortion and referral to abortion, will remain applicable. Academic freedom is no defense against breaking the law, and faculty or others in charge of topics and class discussions must themselves remain neutral on the topic and may not conduct or engage in discussions in violation of these prohibitions without risking legal action.

Many applied ethics courses include the moral and legal legality of abortion as topics, along with reading, presenting, and analyzing arguments for various positions. It is unclear how the analysis of such arguments can proceed in a way that is likely to strike interested observers as “neutral”. It is therefore unclear how the Advocate General’s advice is compatible with the academic freedom of the instructors who teach these arguments, or with the academic freedom of the instructors who are discouraged from teaching about them for fear that the university will defends against charges of violation of the law. .

Additionally, according to the email, “employees who wish to counsel, promote, or advocate for abortion should do so outside of the line of duty and without the use of any academic resources.” Does this mean that professors cannot write articles or books in which they plead in favor of the moral and legal authorization of abortion?

It is unfortunate that the university administration did not write to the professors promising to defend their academic freedom. Instead, they have promoted an interpretation of the law that threatens academic freedom and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for accusations that professors who discuss the ethical and political dimensions of abortion have knowingly violated the law. .

Inside Higher Ed reports further on the story here.

UPDATE (9/30/29): The American Association of University Teachers (AAUP) has released A declaration about the University of Idaho General Counsel email. An extract:

Under principles of academic freedom widely endorsed by the higher education community, college and university faculty are entitled to freedom in the classroom to discuss their subject matter. All decisions about curriculum, subject matter, and teaching methods should be made by educators who have subject matter expertise. Any attempt to limit this freedom must be firmly rejected by the faculty, the administration, the board of trustees and all those who care about the fundamental academic mission of the institution. Advising the faculty to “remain neutral” will certainly chill the word, but its vagueness is also problematic… The directions offered here are indefensible from the perspective of public health, public education, academic freedom, freedom of expression and even simple logic. This undermines the university’s educational mission and discredits its reputation.

The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) has published a letter he sent to the University. An extract:

It’s true that Idaho Code § 18-8705 prohibits the use of public funds to “promote abortion,” but interpreting that statutory language to require state college professors to “remain neutral on the subject” is a vast excess and inconsistent with the requirements of the First Amendment. It is imperative that the University of Idaho not only inform faculty of the potential risks of teaching with such a law on the books, but also strongly express its objections to such interpretation or application of state law. . Counsel from the General Counsel sends a chilling message to all faculty members who must discuss difficult and controversial abortion-related topics as part of their teaching duties. The law itself may not recognize “academic freedom [as] a defense against violation of the law,” but the First Amendment is an overriding limitation on the power of the state legislature to impose such a restriction on classroom instruction in the classrooms of state universities.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) also sent a letter to college. An extract:

The U of I’s radical policy directly contravenes the university’s legal obligations and unacceptably chills classroom discourse by placing faculty in perpetual fear of punishment for their protected expression. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how college advice will negatively impact classroom instruction. For example, a political science professor publishing a public policy argument that abortion should be legal will have
to self-censor to ensure that the discussion is not perceived as being “pro-abortion”. A philosophy professor eager to get his students to think about the arguments for restricting access to abortion may play devil’s advocate by arguing for such restrictions – a move that would violate the so-called “neutrality of the instructor”. Even a constitutional law professor’s discussion of past abortion court cases risks being perceived as
violation of the “neutrality of the instructor”. The university must uphold — not erode — First Amendment rights on campus. It must begin by publicly withdrawing this illegal policy.

Boston Review of Philosophy Today