Idaho college censors portions of art exhibit for discussing abortion
Artists, ACLU speak out against what they call free speech violations at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston
This is the gallery entrance to “Unconditional Care” at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts and History in downtown Lewiston, Idaho. (Courtesy of Katrina Majkut)
Artists whose work was scheduled to be displayed at Lewis-Clark State College for an exhibition called “Unconditional Care” say their First Amendment rights were violated after the college censored parts of the show related to abortion.
The college, which is located in Lewiston and serves close to 4,000 students, cited Idaho’s No Public Funds for Abortion Act, a law passed in 2021 prohibiting public funds from being used to “procure, counsel in favor, refer to or perform an abortion.”
Logan Fowler, director of communications and marketing at Lewis-Clark State College, said in an emailed statement, “After obtaining legal advice, per Idaho Code Section 18-8705, some of the proposed exhibits could not be included in the exhibition.” Fowler did not comment on whether the college was concerned the action could be a violation of free speech.
Katrina Majkut, a visual artist of more than a decade whose work often focuses on gender issues through textiles and other mixed media, said she was invited to exhibit her work at the Idaho college’s Center for Arts and History. According to the exhibit description, “Unconditional Care” explores the current most pressing health issues and shares the stories and concerns of those most directly impacted by them, including personal experiences with chronic illnesses, disability, pregnancy, gun violence and sexual assault.
Majkut and two other artists were told a few days before the exhibit opened on March 3 that parts of the exhibit would not be able to be included because of the law.
Majkut told States Newsroom she tries to make her work as educational and nonpartisan as possible by bridging the gap between opposing viewpoints through art, and this is the first time she has encountered a situation like this one.
“I’ve always had a positive experience, I’ve never been censored, I’ve never heard a peep of discontent,” Majkut said.
She said she works to personalize each show to the state it’s in, such as citing specific laws that apply to health care topics. Her exhibit originally included a textile depiction of abortion pills, Majkut said, and she was told that couldn’t be included in the show in any way — not even text of the language of Idaho’s law could be printed on the wall.
“I’m worried that people are going to misinterpret what I was trying to do in the exhibit as sort of pushing a narrative and agenda, and that was not the case. It was really just, let’s talk about these issues in real time with mutual respect and empathy,” Majkut said.
Language accompanying her exhibits also couldn’t include sentences about abortion bans putting in vitro fertilization at risk, or a sentence describing multifetal reduction as a process of aborting embryos that may pose health risks to sibling fetuses or the pregnant person. The sentence stated this process is also affected by abortion bans.
“As an artist, I’m always operating under the assumption that I can do my work under First Amendment rights, and the fact that I’m doing so educationally and objectively, in a way that’s not biased, in an academic setting, I would’ve thought these things would be OK,” Majkut said.
A new version of the No Public Funds for Abortion Act was introduced in the Idaho Legislature in January that included language clarifying that the law should not be interpreted to include classroom discussion of abortion, but that bill stalled in the Idaho House of Representatives and did not move forward.
Artist interviewed women about pregnancies following her own abortion
As the exhibit’s curator, Majkut also asked artist Lydia Nobles to include her work in the show. Nobles has worked for several years to interview 17 women about their experiences with pregnancy and abortion after her own abortion experience in 2018.
“When I had my abortion, my mom was pressuring me a lot to get an abortion, and I also received pressure from people in my life who were encouraging me to keep my pregnancy. In that experience, I really felt like, ‘Wow, there’s all these different opinions, and I can’t find my own voice in this,’” Nobles told States Newsroom.
She built corresponding sculptures for each interview, including one representing her own, but the Lewis-Clark show was only scheduled to feature four of the interviews — two from women who had an abortion, one who had a multifetal reduction and one who had no choice but to give birth according to her state laws. All four women were from states outside of Idaho.
“I want viewers to listen to the stories and see how complex each situation is, and how it’s not just a black and white scenario,” Nobles said. “They can look and listen and decide what they want to do with their own bodies, their own beliefs.”
Aside from the time and energy she put into editing the pieces for inclusion in the show, Nobles said she also felt like the incident did a disservice to the women she interviewed for the project.
“When you’re working with participants in a project, as an artist, it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re putting their stories in places where there’s integrity and honesty and transparency,” Nobles said. “I felt like that was initially what was happening, and then it was just a surprise railroading.”
Nobles reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union because she felt her free speech rights were violated by the college. The ACLU and its Idaho chapter joined the National Coalition Against Censorship to send a letter to the college’s president, Cynthia Pemberton, to express alarm over the decision.
Attorney: ACLU is concerned about broad application of Idaho law
Scarlet Kim, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, told States Newsroom the organization has been monitoring Idaho’s No Public Funds for Abortion Act and how it could be affecting speech on the campuses of public universities. The act was also the reason Lewis-Clark’s neighboring institution in Moscow, the University of Idaho, released a memo to staff in September warning about the implications of the law that could cause staff to lose their jobs or face criminal prosecution.
The ACLU is concerned about the application of the law to works of art that are merely discussing abortion, according to Kim.
“It’s not clear that the works even touch upon whether or not abortion is good or bad, not that it matters at all,” Kim said. “In general, it seems like the university is a site where discussions about these important public topics should be occurring regularly, even more so at a gallery that’s part of a university which is situated in the heart of downtown and is open to the public and meant to spur discussion.”
Another art piece that was removed from the exhibit was a letter written to Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, in the 1920s. The Chicago-based artist, Michelle Hartney, surrounded the letter’s words in yarrow flowers, a plant that used to be used to induce miscarriages.
At the same time, Boise State University in the southeastern corner of the state hosted an event called, “Adolf Who? The Bloodbath of Margaret Sanger” on Tuesday, a presentation by Seth Gruber, a national anti-abortion activist who co-opted the White Rose Resistance from the Holocaust to support his anti-abortion campaign.
Kim said both events should be allowed to take place unencumbered.
“It does seem disturbing to see that at two different universities, we’re seeing one university that feels it cannot allow discussion about abortion that may not even be endorsing abortion, but at another university, you see this counter example,” Kim said.
Mike Sharp, director of media relations at Boise State, told States Newsroom in an email that the event was organized, planned and funded by students.
“We understand that the open exchange of ideas, which is fundamental to education, can introduce ideas that some people may find unwelcome, disagreeable or even offensive,” Sharp said. “However, Boise State University cannot infringe upon the First Amendment rights of any members of our community, regardless of whether we, as individuals, agree or disagree with the message.”
Kim said the Idaho law is another iteration of similar laws in states where legislators are attempting to place restrictions on topics that can be taught at public universities. New legislation in Florida would eliminate entire majors and courses at the state’s public universities, including any projects relating to critical race theory, gender studies, intersectionality or any derivatives.
While Kim could not say if the organization was planning to pursue legal action, Nobles said she hopes that will happen.
“It just feels really unfortunate that the college is attempting to silence my voice and the people who participated in my project, and I feel like my project is really about listening and having empathy for other people and their stories and allowing them to exist as they are,” Nobles said. “These are laws that are supporting abortion bans and they’re intersecting with areas like learning and education, and I don’t know that people really realize what’s going on.”
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