Art that mentioned abortion was stripped from an exhibition at an Idaho public college—and the college is suggesting that state law tied their hands.
The art show, “Unconditional Care,” opened last week at Lewis-Clark State College and is meant to address “today’s biggest health issues,” like “chronic illness, disability, pregnancy, sexual assault, and gun violence and deaths,” according to a late February release about the show. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, abortion has surged to the forefront of the national debate over health care.
But rather than showing that, school officials removed videos that depict women sharing their experiences with pregnancy and reproductive rights, a work that includes a handwritten historical letter addressed to Planned Parenthood’s founder, and a piece that depicts abortion pills, according to the Guardian. The artist behind the last piece, Katrina Majkut, told the Guardian that officials would not even let her use the term “post-Roe America.”
“I did try to have some alternative stand-in, such as a curtain placed over the work or a sign that said ‘Artwork has been removed in accordance with law,’” Majkut said. “But that was all rejected too.”
Majkut, who also worked as a guest curator on the exhibition, told Artnet News that her work was removed after she gave administrators a tour.
“I said that I wanted the wall text up even if I can’t have the artwork because it literally reiterates Idaho’s own law to the students,” Majkut said. “That was a no-go. It’s an educational setting, but I was told directly in person that the wall text wasn’t okay.”
“The censorship of my piece is extra alarming because it comes from a letter that was written 100 years ago by a desperate mom,” Michelle Hartney, the artist whose work includes the historical letter, told Artnet News. “I feel compelled, through this project, to make sure the stories and pleas from these mothers from the past are not forgotten.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Lewis-Clark State College said the school “became aware of concerns” about the exhibition on Feb. 26, just a few days before the exhibition was set to open.
“Within 24 hours the college engaged legal counsel to try to determine if any of the concerns might be in conflict with Idaho Code Section 18-8705,” the spokesperson said. “Over the next 48 hours the college worked closely and carefully with legal counsel to review exhibit items. On Feb. 28, within hours of receiving legal advice that some of the proposed exhibits could not be included in the exhibition, the college began notifying the third-party exhibit curator and artists involved.”
Idaho Code Section 18-8705 refers to the No Public Funds for Abortion Act, a 2021 law that blocks public funds from being used to perform abortions, counsel for abortions, refer for abortions, or even “promote abortion.” Last year, the University of Idaho cited that law when it warned employees that they could be fired if they referred students for abortions, offered them birth control, or failed to “remain neutral” when speaking about abortion.
Now, representatives from the ACLU and other anti-censorship organizations have stepped in to write a letter to Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton, urging the school to reinstate the work of Lydia Nobles, the artist behind the video pieces. The groups warned the college that its interpretation of the No Public Funds for Abortion Act demonstrates just how easily it can be abused.
“As the Supreme Court recognized 80 years ago, “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion,” wrote the ACLU, the ACLU of Idaho, and the National Coalition Against Censorship. “The College’s decision threatens this bedrock First Amendment principle by censoring Nobles’ important work and denying visitors of the Center the opportunity to view, consider, and discuss it.”
In an email to VICE News, Nobles called for Pemberton to reverse the decision to remove the artwork.
“Freedom of speech is worth fighting for and your interpretation of the law is far-reaching and inaccurate,” Nobles said. At what cost will you deny the students of Lewis-Clark State their right to critical conversations around abortion access?”
In her email, Nobles also included a statement from Cat Hadley, whose account was depicted in Nobles’ removed art. In one video, Hadley shared how state law kept her from getting an abortion in Michigan in 2007. She was forced to continue her pregnancy.
"I think it is a travesty that in 2023 when people share their truth, they are met with being silenced instead of heard. I avoided sharing my story for over a decade out of the same shame that would work to silence me, and I won't be silent anymore,” Hadley said. “I am outraged that my First Amendment rights are being trampled because my story does not fit into a particular narrative. My story seeks to share the real consequences people face when they cannot receive an abortion."