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Idaho Federation of Teachers v. Labrador

Location: Idaho
Status: Ongoing
Last Update: August 7, 2023

What's at Stake

This lawsuit challenged an Idaho statute that purports to criminalize the use of any public funds to “promote abortion” or “counsel in favor of abortion.” We argued that the law violates the First Amendment by restricting academic speech about abortion by faculty at Idaho’s public universities, and that the law is unconstitutionally vague.

On August 8, 2023, the ACLU, the ACLU of Idaho, Professor Seth Kreimer, and law firm Strindberg Scholnick Birch Hallam Harstad Thorne filed a lawsuit in Idaho to challenge that state’s No Public Funds for Abortion Act (“NPFAA”). The NPFAA criminalizes the use of any public finds to “promote abortion” or “counsel in favor of abortion.” The statute is part of a flurry of recent anti-abortion legislation in Idaho but also represents a novel attack on speech related to abortion.

The plaintiffs in this case are two teachers’ unions—the Idaho Federation of Teachers and the University of Idaho Teachers Federation, Local 3215 of the American Federation of Teachers—and six university professors, who teach at the University of Idaho and Boise State University. Our Plaintiffs teach about abortion across diverse disciplines, including bioethics, philosophy, history, literature, political science, sociology, journalism, and social work. As a result of the NPFAA, they excised modules out of course curricula, removed reading assignments, avoided lectures or classroom discussions, refrained from substantive feedback on student research and writing, and ceased their own scholarship or promotion of their scholarship about abortion.

They argued that the NPFAA violates the First Amendment by restricting the academic speech of faculty at Idaho’s public universities. They also argued that the NPFAA violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which prohibits vague laws, because the NPFAA’s plain text leaves unclear where the NPFAA draws the line between permissible speech and speech that “promotes” or “counsels in favor of” abortion.

The NPFAA is one of many attempts in Idaho to attack reproductive health care—and information about this essential care—in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade. The Dobbs ruling allowed Idaho’s criminal ban on abortion to go into effect, prohibiting virtually all abortion care. In its wake, the Idaho Attorney General issued a legal opinion claiming that health care providers cannot refer patients out of state for abortion care under Idaho’s ban—a threat that was subsequently blocked by a federal court for blatantly violating the free speech rights of physicians to make appropriate medical referrals. And the state legislature in 2023 passed a law that criminalizes assisting a pregnant minor to obtain abortion care in states where abortion is still legal, and even explicitly protected.

This case is part of the ACLU’s ongoing efforts to combat emerging speech restrictions on abortion following Dobbs, including West Alabama Women’s Center v. Marshall, Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawai’i, Indiana, Kentucky v. Labrador, and Guam Society of OBGYNS v. Guerrero. It is also part of the ACLU’s ongoing efforts to protect academic freedom, including in Pernell v. Lamb and BERT v. O’Connor.

On July 3, 2024, the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho dismissed the case because the officials charged with enforcing the law committed not to enforce it in the setting of academic speech. In particular, the court found that Idaho professors can engage in their planned teaching and scholarship under the law without fear of prosecution, resting on explicit commitments by the Idaho attorney general after this lawsuit was filed that the NPFAA does not apply to academic speech. In reaching its decision, the court agreed with the university professors that a one-sided prohibition restricting “speech that promotes or counsels in favor abortion, while permitting speech that denounces or counsels against abortion,” is “blatantly unconstitutional.” Nevertheless, based on the attorney general’s commitment not to enforce the NPFAA against academic speech, the court concluded that professors lacked standing to challenge the law and dismissed the case. By recognizing the merits of plaintiffs’ claims and hinging its dismissal on the attorney general’s explicit promise not to use the NPFAA to punish protected academic speech, the outcome in this case allows our plaintiffs to commence teaching and pursuing scholarship about abortion as they would have prior to passage of the NPFAA.

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