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Idaho’s Race to Bottom Continues


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Idaho’s Race to Bottom Continues

By Steven A. Smith

When teaching journalism at the University of Idaho, I always tried to connect my courses to the real world.

For my intro course, Media and Society, every class session opened with a discussion of current events and an events quiz. For my Media Ethics class, I tried to use real-world issues to frame ethical decision-making for journalists.

In both courses, classroom discussion was rarely heated. But it could be lively.

I have been retired for nearly three years. But had I been teaching this fall, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would have been a topic of discussion in my intro class.  And news coverage of that decision would have been a topic in my media ethics class.

Except, under new guidelines sent to faculty and staff late last month, my discussion of abortion issues might violate state law and so could potentially subject me to criminal prosecution. It would almost certainly lead to some sort of university investigation.

There is so much to unpack here, too much for one column. In its handling of public education at all levels, the state has been racing to the bottom for years. Financial support is continuing to decline, the legislature, dominated by nutjob Republicans, is convinced education at all levels exists to indoctrinate students in left-wing and woke ideology.

I have written about these issues before, so will not address them here.

My immediate concern is the Office of the General Counsel’s Sept. 23 memo to UI faculty and staff and the impact on student well-being and on the freedom of teachers to teach. (There are also free speech issues at play, addressed here by Becky Tallent, a colleague at UI and at FāVS. And this Monday news story by FāVS reporter Nina Culver explains possible legal intervention by a free speech advocacy group.)

The Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise has done a good job reporting on the memo and its impact.

In a Sept. 27 story, the paper reported that the memo sent to faculty and staff cited state anti-abortion laws, including a 1972 criminal code relating to contraception, prohibiting university employees “while doing their jobs, from promoting abortion, providing, or performing an abortion, counseling in favor of abortion, referring people for abortions or providing facilities for an abortion.” Employees also can’t dispense emergency contraception, contract with abortion providers or advertise or promote services for abortion, the memo said.

“Employees who violate the laws could face misdemeanor or felony charges and loss of employment,” the Statesman reported.

That prohibition mostly affects student health services and the counseling staff. Apparently, the university can continue to distribute condoms, but not for purposes of contraception, only for prevention of STDs.

This is insanity. UI students are as sexually active as students at any college or university. Will this new university policy lead to celibacy or to more unwanted pregnancies? Will it really lead to fewer abortions, or will it send students eight miles across the border to Pullman where Planned Parenthood can legally provide the service?

In my time at UI, I served as a student adviser. And my office was a safe space where any student could come to discuss concerns with an assurance of privacy. There were a few occasions where I needed to literally walk students to the counseling center because their emotional state was fragile. Over those years I remember a couple of students dealing with unwanted pregnancies.

Students came to me because they trusted my advice. Under the new guidelines my ability to freely discuss difficult issues with students would be limited, at best.

Just as troubling to faculty, as the Statesman reported, “Classroom discussions on issues related to abortion are only allowed when ‘limited to discussions and topics relevant to the class subject,’ and if the instructor remains neutral. The discussions should be ‘approached carefully,’ the email said.”

Furthermore, “academic freedom is not a defense to violation of law.”

Since the memo was sent, faculty and staff have been struggling for some clarity. But UI administrators are typically tight-lipped issuing sound-bite statements that say nothing.

However, in that Sept. 27 Statesman story, UI spokeswoman Jodi Walker was reported to say: “While abortion can be discussed as a policy issue in the classroom, we highly recommend employees in charge of the classroom remain neutral or risk violating this law. We support our students and employees, as well as academic freedom, but understand the need to work within the laws set out by our state.”

This is not reassuring.

My intro class, Media and Society, would have anywhere from 40 to 120 students each semester. In moderating a discussion on Roe v. Wade, how could I ensure the discussions would be perceived as neutral by all? If I failed to tell a student to be quiet when they were making a pro-choice argument, would I be showing bias?

Every semester, without fail, I would have one student in one of my classes complain that I was politically biased. Those complaints would die in my department where my colleagues understood their nature.

Under the new guidelines, I can say with some certainty, such complaints now would prompt a university inquiry. That is a chilling prospect for any faculty member. And that chilling will inevitably diminish the quality of classroom education.

Free and open inquiry, free and open discussion is the foundation of a quality liberal arts education.

Of course, quality education is not a concern of the Idaho Legislature. The anti-abortion laws and the anti-contraception code were not enacted to handicap higher education. That is an unanticipated consequence. But does anyone seriously believe there will be any effort in the legislature to remedy the issue?

Faculty frustration and anger is substantial. Students, including the conservative student body president, are upset.

The loser in this sorry story will be the university, which may lose faculty, which may have trouble recruiting new faculty and which may lose students present and future.

Idaho’s race to the bottom continues. Except there appears to be no bottom.

Steven A Smith
Steven A Smith
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. He writes a weekly opinion column. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.

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