Idaho professors join lawsuit to seek academic freedom against Idaho antiabortion law

BOISE — The American Federation of Teachers union affiliates and professors at the University of Idaho and Boise State University filed suit to request an injunction against Idaho’s so-called “No Public Funds for Abortion Act.”

The Act — Idaho code 18-8701 — became law in 2022, arising from the combined efforts of the Idaho Family Policy Center, a religious nonprofit that has campaigned for anti-abortion legislation since 2020, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national religious lobby.

Filed on August 8, the complaint asserts that the antiabortion law prohibits free speech by professors in the classroom, in their research, and in other scholastic arenas. Professors Aleta Quinn, Casey Johnson, Markie McBrayer, Zachary Turpin, and Kathryn Blevins of the University of Idaho and Heather Witt of Boise State University are named in the suit.

“By enacting the NPFAA, the Idaho legislature has placed a ‘strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders’ of the State’s public universities,” the suit reads. “And that strait jacket is viewpoint discriminatory — for professors can engage in academic speech that opposes or counsels against abortion without risking prosecution.”

The suit continues to say that the “sweeping and unclear” boundaries established by the act compound a “chilling effect on academic expression.”

The filing names Idaho’s Republican Attorney General Raúl Labrador, and three county prosecuting attorneys (Ada County’s Jan M. Bennetts, Bannock County’s Stephen F. Herzog and Latah County’s Bill Thompson) as co-defendants. The attorney general didn’t respond to a request for comment.

American Civil Liberties Union attorneys are among those representing the professors and unions.

“The NPFAA represents an unprecedented and dangerous attack on speech about abortion, part of the unrelenting assault on reproductive health care in the wake of the overturning of Roe. Our clients have been forced to censor their teaching and scholarship about abortion or risk imprisonment, loss of livelihood, and financial ruin,” Scarlet Kim, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said in a press release.

That imprisonment and loss of livelihood is in reference to NPFAA’s criminal penalties for “misusing public funds.” These include up to 14 years incarceration, fines, termination from public employment, and restitution of the “misused” public funds, according to Idaho Code.

This threat, the suit claims, leaves Idaho’s public university educators with “an impossible — and unconstitutional — choice: avoid any speech that could be construed as favorable to abortion in course materials, lectures, class discussions, student assignments, and academic scholarship” or risk the legal consequences.

No court date has been set.

Matt Denis

Matt Denis

Reporter Matt Denis is based in the Treasure Valley and has served as an educator and a journalist. Prior to national digital reporting and founding an arts and culture section in Eugene, Oregon, Matt worked as an English and history teacher in Detroit, San Diego, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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