A group of Idaho educators is suing the state over a law that they say punishes teachers with up to 14 years in prison for discussing or teaching about abortion in the classroom.
The No Public Funds for Abortion Act (NPFAA) prohibits the use of public funds to “promote” or “counsel” in favor of abortion. Professors across Idaho’s publicly-funded universities say that this stifles both lessons on abortion and research on the procedure.
Six Idaho professors and two teachers’ unions sued on Tuesday, saying that the law violates their free speech rights by suppressing academic speech in relation to abortion. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, law professor Seth Kreimer, and a private law firm.
The lawsuit also says that the NPFAA violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment by failing to properly define what it means to “promote” or “counsel” on abortion. The law’s vague terminology makes it impossible for an ordinary person to understand what is and isn’t allowed, the ACLU says, meaning that interpretation of the law could be extremely broad.
“For example, these terms could potentially encompass discussions about proposed legislation to scale back Idaho’s criminalization of abortion; objective public health data or statistical analyses that imply advantages to abortion access; or discussion of medical, social, or familial circumstances where abortion might improve health outcomes,” the ACLU wrote in a post about the lawsuit.
The professors say that the law has forced them to change their lesson plans to avoid facing jail time or “ruinous” fines.
According to the ACLU, a philosophy professor removed a module about human reproduction from a bioethics course due to the law; a political science professor stopped teaching about abortion policies; and, as ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project senior staff attorney and lead attorney on the lawsuit Scarlet Kim told Jezebel, there are some professors “declining to pursue research into abortion or abortion-related topics” entirely, including on the topic of parental mortality.
Additionally, as Jezebel pointed out, University of Idaho wrote in an email to faculty last year that it is against the rules for faculty to refer students for abortion services or provide them with birth control, including condoms. The email also said that abortion may only be discussed in the classroom if instructors remain “neutral” on the topic. The university cited laws that “restrict expenditures of funds and activities of university employees in the areas of abortion and contraception.”
Though the law has been in place since 2021, it has taken on new significance in the U.S.’s current anti-abortion climate. Idaho has some of the most extreme anti-abortion laws on the books — in addition to having a total ban on the procedure, the state has a law prohibiting physicians from referring people for out-of-state abortions, which is currently on hold pending court action.
The lawsuit says that the law places a “strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders” of Idaho’s public universities.
“The NPFAA therefore 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 imprisonment, loss of livelihood, and financial ruin for violating the law,” the lawsuit says.
Meanwhile, educators have warned that restrictions on lessons about abortion in universities could have a chilling effect, perhaps similarly to the right’s attempts to erase history by restricting universities and schools from teaching about issues of race and diversity.
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