Boise State Anti-Abortion Group Sues Over What It Claims Are Free Speech Restrictions

An anti-abortion group at Boise State University has filed a lawsuit against the school because they say their free speech rights were violated.

Abolitionists4Life had reserved space in one of the school’s “speech zones,” where groups can reserve tables to sign up new members and promote their values, and their display included graphic pictures. You can see some of them in the background below, courtesy of the group’s Facebook page:

Members of the Secular Student Alliance protest in front of one of the signs

One of the exhibits included signs with images from abortions. The other featured an autopsy photo of a woman who died having an abortion. A flap that kept the photo from view had a warning on it, but university officials said separate signs were needed to warn students walking by.

(Before we can even talk about the free speech aspect of this, let’s acknowledge the deception going on here. More than 90% of abortions take place in the first trimester, when pills — not botched procedures — are the usual responses. To suggest that those graphic images represent all abortions is wildly irresponsible.)

The group’s argument, in part, is that the school demanded they have warning signs next to their images:

One of the exhibits included signs with images from abortions. The other featured an autopsy photo of a woman who died having an abortion. A flap that kept the photo from view had a warning on it, but university officials said separate signs were needed to warn students walking by.

I don’t see any warning signs in those pictures above… but I don’t get why a double-layer of warnings would be necessary.

Daniel Calderon, the Vice-President of the school’s Secular Student Alliance, added in a message to me:

If they truly are a student organization dedicated to, “engag[ing] in peaceful expressive activities on campus — including oral communication, literature distribution, and the display of signs,” then the crux of their argument shouldn’t rely on autopsy photos and images of dismembered fetuses.

The other issue, Abolitionists4Life members say, is that the school says student groups must remain within the “speech zones”… but Planned Parenthood and the Secular Student Alliance have promoted themselves outside the zones without punishment — and fraternities and sororities don’t even seem to need to make a reservation to promote themselves:

Abolitionists4Life said other campus groups staged events without warning signs and outside the designated speech zones. It claimed Planned Parenthood handed out free condoms and The Secular Student Alliance held pro-abortion and anti-religious signs outside the zone. It also said that fraternities and sororities and off-campus groups hand out literature without a speech zone reservation or outside their reserved space.

Calderon said that just wasn’t true for the SSA group:

… for them to claim we were somehow ignoring some boundary is just absurd and unsubstantiated. I can’t speak for other groups, but I know we try to adhere to school policy at all times. Any errors are done out of ignorance and we have always been obliging with university policy if they tell us we are doing something wrong.

“Speech zones” shouldn’t be an issue. The school has to apply the same rules across the board. If the boundaries are meaningless, then just do away with them altogether. If they’re there for a purpose, then enforce them.

But there’s clearly a difference between bloody, graphic abortion images and handing out condoms or holding up signs with words on them. If the Secular Student Alliance was allowed to get away with holding up pictures of Muslim women who have suffered from acid attacks as a way to call out religious extremism, then I would agree that Abolitionists4Life is getting treated unfairly. As it stands, it’s hard to take their cries of persecution seriously.

That said, I asked Kelsey Hazzard, a pro-life atheist who participated in a First Amendment Clinic during law school, what she thought about the warning signs issue. She told me it seemed a little excessive: “[College students are] part of the age demographic that accounts for a significant percentage of abortions; do we really think that they’re mature enough to *have* an abortion, but not mature enough to *see* an abortion?” That may be a fair point, though given the whole battle over “Trigger Warnings” on college campuses, I can understand the school’s desire to warn people before seeing highly-graphic images.

I reached out yesterday to Abolitionists4Life to get more information. They did not write back as of this posting.

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