BOISE, Idaho– A truck equipped with a bright LED billboard began circling the University of Idaho campus on Friday.
“Pregnant? You still have a choice,” read one of the bright blue and white messages that flashed on the side. “You can still get abortion pills in the mail,” another message read.
The moving billboard was a salvo by Mayday Health against Idaho’s anti-abortion laws, including some that prohibit state employees from promoting or endorsing abortion or emergency contraception. The organization seeks to inform people in anti-abortion states how to access abortion and contraception.
Mayday Health chose Moscow, Idaho, for the action after the university warned employees not to refer students to abortion or birth control providers lest they break state laws.
“This effort is part of protecting free speech and the First Amendment,” Kaori Sueyoshi, chief strategy officer for Mayday Health, said Friday morning. “We want to make sure that students at and around the University of Idaho have accurate information on how to obtain birth control pills, Plan B (emergency contraception), and how to access safe abortion.”
University of Idaho Chancellor Torrey Lawrence said the legal guidance was simply intended to protect staff. Boise State University recently issued similar, albeit less strict, advice.
“Some employees weren’t aware and others had asked for legal guidance,” Lawrence told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday. “Because our employees are paid with state funds, this could result in criminal prosecution.”
But the UI memo was shared on social media sites like Reddit and Twitter, quickly making waves in a country still grappling with the US Supreme Court decision that struck down abortion rights. The White House press secretary condemned the memo. Some TikTok users, and some major media organizations, falsely claimed that the university had “banned” birth control for students.
And some of Idaho’s other 900,000 employees began to wonder what the laws would mean for them.
At this point, there isn’t much direction from elected officials. Rep. Brent Crane, one of the sponsors of the “No Public Funding for Abortion Act” of 2021, said laws often have to be refined after they’re passed to fix problems, and he’s not concerned the process could take a long time. year or more. plus.
The Idaho Attorney General’s office said questions about the laws should be directed to county prosecutors who have enforcement functions. Idaho’s prosecutors are elected in each of the state’s 44 counties, so answers to compliance questions can change from region to region and from year to year.
Avoiding doing anything that seems to promote abortion on the job can be easy for a designated farmer for the Idaho Bean Commission or a geologist mapping minerals for the Idaho Geological Survey. But the law is murkier for others who receive state funds.
Could a discussion of politics at the dinner table in front of a teenage foster child be considered “promoting abortion,” especially if part of the dinner was covered by the state’s foster parents’ $584 monthly stipend? Would an Idaho Public Television reporter risk prosecution if a viewer says an interview with a Planned Parenthood representative gave the abortion advocate too much airtime?
A spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare did not immediately know if the law would apply to foster parents and said it would work to find out the answer Friday.
Idaho Public Television CEO Bill Manny isn’t worried about facing prosecution as long as his organization continues to do a good job of informing viewers and voters about the issues of the day.
“I can’t imagine that anyone who wrote the law or interpreted it imagined preventing people in good faith from speaking out on important public policy issues in our state,” Manny said. “That’s what we do with our shows and that’s what we do with our debates, and we think that’s the right way forward.”
But in a recent podcast by Melissa Davlin, lead producer of Idaho Public Television’s news show Idaho Reports, former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones said the law tramples on First Amendment rights and could put risk to public media journalists.
“I think someone could make a complaint that you had a guest who was promoting abortion, so you must have been complicit,” Jones said during the podcast. “It’s about saying, ‘Keep your mouth shut, don’t talk about these things,’ and that’s a dangerous thing for the government.”
Meanwhile, the University of Idaho is dealing with the backlash.
“It is not a mandate. In fact, our policies have not changed,” Chancellor Lawrence told the AP on Thursday. “The communication was trying to offer some initial guidance on a fairly vague law that is designed to be punitive to state employees.”
The school does not prescribe birth control to students, but for years it has made bowls of condoms available for free in some campus bathrooms. Those continue to be distributed, but are now intended to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases rather than prevent pregnancy.
Student health care has long been provided by outside health care companies. The Vandal Health Clinic, named after the UI mascot, is currently run by a local hospital system, Gritman Medical Center. Gritman said his services, which include contraceptive prescription, would not change.
Lawrence said he did not expect the university’s contract with Gritman to be affected by the law. He also did not believe that the university’s many contracts with research and education grant partners, which include the federal government, which in some cases provides abortions through the US Department of Veterans Affairs, would be affected.
But individual employees could face significant consequences if charged, he said.
“The law focuses and targets the individual, so all state employees paid with state funds are implicated and are at risk of very serious consequences, not only felony or misdemeanor charges, but also fines, possibly jail time, possibly lose your job and possibly be banned from ever. working for the state again,” Lawrence said. “Our advice is to stay in a safer position until we know exactly how all of this will play out.”