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University of Idaho Should Rescind Guidance on Speech About Abortion

The University of Idaho administration has abandoned its duty to uphold the mission of the institution and signaled to all the world that the university is no longer committed to academic freedom. As was widely reported, last week faculty at the University of Idaho received “guidance” from the institution’s general counsel which states, among other things, that “faculty or others in charge of classroom topics and discussion” must “remain neutral on the topic [of abortion].”

The new guidance appears to be an incredible overreaction by the administration to a law triggered by last summer’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and a new law banning public funds for abortion. The triggered law bans all abortions in Idaho unless the pregnant person’s life is at risk or if rape or incest has been reported to authorities.

Under principles of academic freedom widely endorsed by the higher education community, college and university teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject. All decisions about curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction should be made by educators who have expertise in the subject. Any attempt to limit that freedom must be soundly rejected by the faculty, the administration, the board, and all who care about the core academic mission of the institution. Advising the faculty to “remain neutral” will certainly chill speech, but its vagueness is also problematic, as Russell Meeuf, a professor of media studies at the University of Idaho who worked on an academic freedom policy there, pointed out:

[Remaining neutral is] so open-ended because it’s so subjective, and that gives more power to people looking to silence faculty voices than it does to empower faculty in the classroom to lead us in discussions of relevant topics. In a history class where you’re talking about the history of reproductive rights in the US, what does “neutral” even mean in that context? How do you talk about that history in a neutral way when the very facts of it would appear to not be neutral to a lot of observers?

If the university administration's view is that limiting abortion is good public policy, then well-informed, reasoned discussion of the issue, including the opposing views of participants who hold strong views about it would be an ideal opportunity for that case to be made. Any advice to impose a gag order on faculty to limit or prohibit discussions in the classroom should be rejected immediately. The proposed guidance here is indefensible from the point of view of public health, public education, academic freedom, free speech, and even simple logic. It undercuts the university's educational mission and discredits its reputation. The AAUP calls on the University of Idaho to rescind the guidance and affirm the institution’s commitment to academic freedom.

Publication Date: 
Thursday, September 29, 2022