“Cancel Culture”? North Dakota Lawmakers Try to Block Abortion Rights Supporters from University Campuses

Opponents of the law warned it set “a dangerous precedent of infringing upon academic and intellectual freedom by requiring institutions to advance partisan political beliefs in order to obtain necessary and irreplaceable academic funding.”

“Cancel Culture”? North Dakota Lawmakers Try to Block Abortion Rights Supporters from University Campuses
Pro-abortion protesters in New York City’s Foley Square in February 2011 protest a cut in funding for Planned Parenthood in the GOP’s budget. (Dave Bledsoe / Flickr)

North Dakota State University (NDSU) nursing professor Molly Secor-Turner has partnered with Planned Parenthood on a sex education program for high-risk youth since 2012. Last month, North Dakota lawmakers targeted this kind of collaboration when they passed a bill that would have put faculty members in jail for working with abortion providers and supporters, fine them and impose multi-million-dollar penalties on their universities.

At the time, NDSU faculty senate president Florin D. Salajan criticized lawmakers for using “intimidation tactics, the threat of legal repercussions and imposition of financial penalties to prevent the legitimate pursuit of scholarly work that has been demonstrated to be beneficial to our fellow citizens, but that legislators may consider at odds with their own convictions.” Salajan warned that the law would have a “chilling effect on faculty retention and recruitment.”

Senate Bill 2030 required the state’s attorney to criminally prosecute any university employee who signs a contract with an abortion provider or supporter, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. The law also would have imposed a $2.8 million fine on any of the state’s 11 colleges and universities if they allow such partnerships. Even though Planned Parenthood does not provide abortion services in North Dakota, faculty working with them still would have faced jail time and fines, as well as steep penalties against their universities.

“This bill was devastating because of the impact that it would have had on many people, but especially young people, who so often have information hidden from them,” said Preston Mitchum, policy director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE), which supports comprehensive sex ed. “The bill was an attempt to take away access to information.”

Governor Doug Burgam vetoed the most extreme parts of the bill—the criminal penalties and fines—but he signed into law another provision that may have similar effects by blocking matching grants to public universities that partner in any way with individuals or organizations that support abortion rights—even if the partnership has nothing to do with abortion.

Students organized a petition and issued a resolution condemning the law for setting “a dangerous precedent of infringing upon academic and intellectual freedom by requiring institutions to advance partisan political beliefs in order to obtain necessary and irreplaceable academic funding.”

The law restricts North Dakota’s Challenge Grant program, which matches $1 for every $2 raised by universities for scholarships. To be eligible, universities must certify they are not “sponsoring, partnering with, applying for grants with, or providing a grant subaward to any person or organization that performs or promotes the performance of an abortion unless the abortion is necessary to prevent the death of the woman, and not participating in or sponsoring any program producing, distributing, publishing, disseminating, endorsing, or approving materials of any type or from any organization which, between normal childbirth and abortion, do not give preference, encouragement, and support to normal childbirth.” The law has no exception for abortion in cases of rape or incest.

(Sarah Mirk / Flickr)

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani warned against “canceling academic offerings at the behest of the legislature,” noting that a research university “cannot dictate how researchers conduct research or deliver curricula. Instead, faculty have a great deal of leeway on these issues. This is referred to as academic freedom, and it is rooted in freedom of speech.”

Ironically, North Dakota lawmakers professing concern about “cancel culture” at universities enacted a campus free speech and academic freedom law just last month. The law requires institutions to “allow students, student organizations and faculty to invite guest speakers to campus to engage in free speech regardless of the views of the guest speakers or content of the anticipated speech.”

Governor Burgam noted the contradiction between the campus speech law and SB 2030 in a letter released on May 7 when he vetoed the criminal penalties and fines provisions of the law. The 2021 legislative session ended on April 30 so lawmakers would have to call a special session to override Governor Burgam’s veto.

Former chair of the State Board of Higher Education Kirsten Bakke Diederich cautioned that SB 2030 was a “harbinger of nightmares to come for higher education in the state … Successful research cannot happen if government interference is but one legislator’s whim away.”

The final law exempts University of North Dakota’s school of medicine and health science, as well as nursing education programs at any campus—so Secor-Turner can continue her work with Planned Parenthood—but other parts of the university system are subject to the limitation, including humanities and social science programs.

Professor Yvette Koepke-Nelson, director of University of North Dakota’s Women and Gender Studies Program, says faculty, students and staff are concerned about the “chilling effects” of the law.

“I’ve heard people voice a lot of questions about what the law might mean,” Koepke-Nelson told Ms. “I’ve definitely heard my colleagues raise questions about how do I teach—do I have to be worried about teaching this? Do we have to worry about inviting speakers? Or research that I might do?”

Koepke gave the example of UND’s diversity and inclusion certificate, which requires an applied experience credit. “Could any of those experiences or choices on the part of students place UND in a situation of not being able to certify their eligibility [for the Challenge Grant]? Could that constitute some kind of partnering?” asked Koepke-Nelson.

She also wonders about campus collaborations with the Community Violence Intervention Center, which provides support for people experiencing domestic and sexual violence. “How will we decide these questions?” asked Koepke-Nelson. “Energy will go into these questions and decisions. So rather than spending your time doing the research, for instance, you have to figure out will this research be okay, and if so, how? And the same with any event or a speaker. Or a student proposing an internship or volunteer work. The stakes are very high because the funding is so important to higher education.”

During the committee hearings, lawmakers requested records relating to any and all dealings with Planned Parenthood from the Women and Gender Studies Program at North Dakota State University. Faculty there are particularly concerned because internships are an integral part of the curriculum.

Preston Mitchum of URGE expressed concerns about the impact of these kinds of laws on young people’s access to information: “Comprehensive sex ed that is medically accurate and age appropriate is so important to young people, to help them make healthy decisions,” Mitchum told Ms. “Any disinvestment from that is causing harm to young people who really need it—people who won’t get it at home, people who have experienced family rejection, and or who don’t have stable housing.”

He also warns that other states might try to pass similar laws. “This is not just something that can take place in North Dakota. If it’s possible in one state, it can be possible in all of them,” said Mitchum.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.