The beginning of the school year was a mere two weeks away when students and faculty of Boise State were launched into controversy after a link to an opinion article written by political science professor Scott Yenor and published by the conservative blog The Daily Signal was posted on the School of Public Service’s Facebook page on Tuesday, Aug. 8.
In the article, titled “Transgender Activists Are Seeking to Undermine Parental Rights,” Yenor writes about what he considers to be the result of the government giving policy support to young transgender individuals—the erosion of parental rights as defined by law.
“A respect for parental rights and childhood innocence are bulwarks against the advance of transgender ideology,” Yenor wrote.
Since its posting, Yenor’s piece has been condemned by several students and faculty, and has become the center of debate across various communities on campus, with the post on the School of Public Service’s page reaching almost 200 comments. As complaints from members of the Boise State community continued to rise, calls for disciplinary action began to turn up, resulting in an online petition on change.org demanding Yenor’s termination, which currently boasts around 2,000 signatures.
This combination of factors poses a question to Boise State—one many universities in America are currently facing, as academic speech is distinct from other cases speech in terms of constitutional law. Boise State’s own administration has been cautious to approach this question: is it justifiable for a university to censor or otherwise silence academic speech? The position of Boise State appears to be against such disciplinary measures to preserve open dialogue, while some students object to Boise State’s inaction on the grounds of protecting transgender students and other groups on campus.
When asked for a statement, Greg Hahn, the associate vice president of Communications and Marketing at Boise State declined to comment specifically on the discussion around Yenor’s article, instead referring to President Bob Kustra’s recent State of the University Address on Aug. 16, where he touched on the subject of promoting free dialogue on campus.
As for the author of the piece in question, Yenor said he was “disappointed” in the reaction to the sharing of his piece, particularly the petition for his termination. After his article was posted by the Boise State Update page, Yenor spent the first week after its posting mostly unaware of the controversy surrounding it. Though the Update page is usually run by professors submitting their own pieces for promotion, Yenor claimed he never sent in the piece to have it featured.
According to Yenor, the piece was written in support of a 20-page paper titled “Sex, Gender and the Origins of the Culture War,” which he wrote earlier this year for the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, which is also the owner of The Daily Signal.
“The longer piece is as moderate and evenhanded as the Daily Signal piece,” Yenor said. “I didn’t think either of them were particularly vituperative.”
While Yenor’s piece continues to be the subject of criticism, the Boise State School of Public Service also found itself under scrutiny after posting the article to their Facebook page.
“We certainly didn’t share it as a way of promoting it, or endorsing the viewpoint,” said Corey Cook, dean of the School of Public Service. “The question was once it’s out in the public arena, do we actively try to silence that speech—and that’s a difficult set of choices, because we’re dealing with competing values.”
Cook went on to say while he has his own thoughts about the piece as a colleague, he expressed his hesitancy to react to the piece as a dean, as that would represent a reaction on behalf of the School of Public Service as a whole. In addition, Cook defended the position of open dialogue on a campus, citing a 2016 study conducted by scholars at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, which claimed a ten-minute session of dialogue resulted in lasting changes in attitude toward transgender individuals. Cook also hopes open dialogue will prevent the outbreak of violence.
“I will continue to respond to every email, and every phone call to say I do not stand behind this paper,” Cook said. “But I also won’t censor him for speaking, because it will have a chilling effect on faculty, and possibly bring harm to our students to do so.”
Francisco Salinas, director of Student Diversity and Inclusion at Boise State, had a similar reaction when referring to the idea of Yenor’s firing for his published work. However, Salinas was also clear in his opposition to Yenor’s piece, and wrote a letter meant to counter it, which was then shared by the School of Public Service.
“It’s dangerous to go down the road of disciplinary action for one’s ideas or ideological orientation,” Salinas said. “His position as faculty allows him the latitude to explore new ideas. But those ideas do not have to be accepted—they can be challenged. And I chose to challenge them, because those ideas lead to bad ends.”
Another response letter was written by Micah Hetherington, president of the Transgender Alliance at Boise State. For him, the answer to this struggle isn’t as simple as merely considering First Amendment rights. Rather, the focus of Hetherington’s criticism is on the safety of transgender individuals on campus.
“His opinion is his own, and he’s allowed to have his opinion. But when Boise State posts it, that’s more of a problem,” Hetherington said. He also criticized the academic standards of the piece, saying it was “unscholarly,” as Hetherington claims Yenor made little or no attempt to address an opposing view on the issue.
In addition, Hetherington went on to describe the fear transgender students experience when Boise State seemingly validates an article with Yenor’s position, particularly after the murder of Simon Bush, a Boise State transgender student last October. Hetherington also added transgender students may feel unsafe in Yenor’s class because of the views expressed in his article. When The Arbiter asked Yenor about this particular criticism, he responded: “I have no comment on that.”
According to Cook, while the University is seeking ways to prevent these instances where some students feel unsafe, the spirit of open dialogue empowers all students to shape the intellectual landscape in which ideas are shared.
“It would be very comfortable to respond to the piece and distance ourselves from what we know is going to happen next. But we know what the next step is,” Cook said. “If it’s a bad idea, you challenge it with a better idea. Our activity is around the clashing of ideas.”