Boise State faculty faces question of free speech following Professor Scott Yenor’s controversial article

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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.”

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About Author

Brandon is a senior studying English with an emphasis in rhetorical writing. As editor-in-chief of The Arbiter, Brandon hopes to assist the staff of Student Media in achieving their goals of engaging and informing the student body by encouraging discourse and striving for excellence in journalism ethics and content. When not in the office, Brandon enjoys reading, playing music and serves as president of the Creative Outlet Writing Club (or COW Club) on campus.

2 Comments

  1. Andy, a proud trans man who is afraid to take Yenor's classes on

    Brad Rasmussen asks, “is it justifiable for a university to censor or otherwise silence academic speech?” That is a great question. The problem is that this is not really what’s at issue here, though the School of Public Service’s PR team is working overtime to frame it as such. It’s that pesky word “scholarly” or “academic” we’re stuck on. So let’s look at what Yenor publicized (by contacting University News Services, since that’s how a prof’s “academic work” gets noticed and publicized, and Yenor is not being truthful by saying he had nothing to do with his paper getting some university ink).

    What we have is the fact that Yenor publicized an opinion–a nonscholarly one. Read it. It’s not research. It’s not scholarly. It’s not peer-reviewed. It’s not printed in an academic outlet. The “opinion piece” was printed in a nonjuried Heritage Foundation rag. Is this scholarly? Is this academic speech? “The Eighth Circuit has ruled that the First Amendment protects professors as scholars” (Eugen, 2010) https://www.aaup.org/our-programs/legal-program/legal-informational-outlines/academic-freedom-and-professorial-speech. However, the First Amendment doesn’t protect individuals who happen to be teachers holding the power of the grade over students. It doesn’t protect bigots who are posing as academics, and who willingly go public with their deeply-held values that are clearly at odds with quite a large number of people at Boise State.

    The question is crystal clear: Is Yenor’s transphobic/anti-trans opinion piece–which is not academic research, but one man’s opinion (and that man happens to hold a job as a professor at a state institution)–granted clearance to be publicized as scholarly speech by First Amendment and academic freedom protections? What if a prof was a flaming racist, in full KKK costume, and writing “opinions” about Blacks being less civilized, unclean, or worthy of less social protection, than Whites? What if a prof was–under the cloak of recognition as a state-employed university faculty member (he or she identified oneself as “professor at Boise State”)–speaking in favor of neo-nazi uprisings across the nation, shouting “Heil, Hitler.” Is that “academic” or “scholarly” speech? The School of Public Services hopes you buy their little fantasy. But we’re not having it. Yenor is violating students’ rights in the classroom.

    You see, the prof isn’t just going about everyday life as a regular U.S. citizen. We all have our private lives that don’t matter to our profession unless we are engaging in illegal acts. Yenor identified himself clearly as having the status–i.e., in a higher authority position than students–of a prof. If he simply had his queerphobic opinions printed in his church’s bulletin, without “prof at Boise State” appended to his name, who really cares? I don’t. It’s his right as an Alt-Right churchgoer.

    But once profs pull out that status weapon and go public with their identity–and that carries over to classroom authority–they are aware they have fate control over their underlings (students in their classrooms). Yenor is protected in using what he considers effective teaching tools in the classroom (see the article reference previously, Hardy v. Jefferson Community College case). However, going public–as a state employee–with not an academic “What it” but a fully-expressed, personally-held opinion that is carried by someone with the power of the gradebook–is another matter altogether. We’re not talking about teaching tools. A racist, sexist, or transphobic attitude is not the same as a hypothetical opinion in a classroom case study. Why is this so difficult for the School of Public Service to get? That’s because they do get it, and are trying to bury this.

    In other words–is it OK for Yenor to use the example of transphobic behaviors, and trans-friendly behaviors, in making a point in the classroom? You bet. Academic freedom. Is it OK for Yenor to publicize a fear-invoking state among trans students on campus (as per the Trans Alliance president’s statement as a trans man)? Because that’s what a personally-held opinion of an instructor of record does, according to Hetherington. When asked about that, Yenor said “I have no comment on that.” How odd. A white guy who uses words like “viituperative” has no comment on whether he thinks his deeply-held personal opinion and values against transgender individuals may evoke fear in trans students?

    You know, Mr. Yenor’s academic freedom and First Amendment protections don’t cover everything under the sun. He’s not apolitically and without opinion requiring a trans-unfriendly textbook in his classroom. That, unfortunately, is protected. He is a person who carries deep-seated values that devalue the nature of some persons who happen to be students over whom he has power. That is a whole different issue, and that is not a mere “promotion of open dialogue” in the classroom.

    Mr. Cook, Yenor’s boss, also bleakly makes a weak argument for “open dialogue” and hopes nobody notices that Yenor’s speech isn’t “academic speech” or “scholarly speech” or “teaching tactics in the classroom.” Yenor is an all-out bigot, and Cook wouldn’t be so quick to let Yenor hide behind his skirt if the issue was Yenor’s value of white pride or anti-semitism. Trans-hatred just isn’t so commonplace, and many of you who aren’t trans don’t understand that it’s the same thing. Hating Blacks, hating Jews—no support from a dean there. Hating trans individuals–well, let’s just let the guy be, huh, in the name of academic freedom. Slap his hand, tell him to play nice with the trans folk. We aren’t having it, Mr. Cook.

    Cook and Yenor (who teaches constitutional law) know better. They are scuttling around to bury this PR nightmare before someone decides to call in the ACLU or the AAUP. And yet, no one in the School of Public Service has issued an apology, saying they were wrong–that it’s not in the best interest of the university to publicize a nonacademic hate–filled, value-laden opinion piece by a person with a 9-month state job. That state job wields the power of the grade, and that’s something that can ruin a person’s life if used by a bigot who can’t separate his values from his academic work.

    Time to call it what it is, Mr. Cook and Mr. Kustra. You got a bigot running loose in political science classrooms, and students know it. They avoid Yenor for it. Time for some of that Trans 101 training all across the School of Public Service, sounds like.

  2. Tom von Alten on

    My favorite part is where Yenor opines that he’s “moderate and evenhanded,” and didn’t think his writing was “particularly vituperative.”

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