As we’ve seen in Idaho and Florida, expect more public university systems in red states to start being tentative, worried, and self-censored when talking about reproductive rights. Cage Rivera/Rewire News Group illustration

Seeking to control what can be taught at public universities—including abortion—is dystopian and grim. It’s what conservatives have always wanted.

With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, conservatives scored a victory decades in the making: controlling pregnant people’s bodies. They’re not satisfied with just that, though. The next step is to control any speech they don’t like.

Just as ever-shifting abortion bans leave people unsure as to the laws that govern them, there’s now a distinct lack of clarity as to what can and can’t be said—and what can and can’t be taught—in schools.

Witness the dual speech and behavior controversy that has roiled the University of Idaho. In 2021, the state passed the “No Public Funds for Abortion” law, prohibiting public university employees from “counseling in favor of abortion.” That’s painfully vague, but definitely inhibits speech. For instance, can you talk about ectopic pregnancies in a biology class without implying abortion? Things got even more opaque following the reversal of Roe in June, when Idaho’s near-total abortion ban kicked in. The university provided guidance to employees that they could now face felony charges if they provided birth control to students.

Two weeks later, everything got reversed. Sort of. University President Scott Green complained that the memo issued to employees “quickly took on a life of its own with misinformation.” He then proceeded to, ostensibly, reassure employees, but those reassurances were vague. To his credit, Green made clear that the university can continue to offer birth control, but he didn’t directly address whether people could or could not “counsel in favor” of abortion. All he really said was that current academic freedom policies had not been changed and that the university cannot and does not prosecute people.

Neither of those reassurances gets at the heart of the issue: Can employees talk about abortion without running afoul of state law?

A similar story is unfolding at the state university system in Florida. The University of Florida may be hiring Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) to be its president. Sasse is a big fan of “religious liberty” when it comes to dismantling the line between church and state, so his hiring likely doesn’t bode well for a university already under siege by conservative elected officials. The state recently asserted in a court document that curriculum and in-class instruction are government speech—not individual speech—and therefore it can regulate what public university teachers say.

The document was filed in a lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of the state’s “Stop WOKE Act,” which at root prohibits professors from teaching about the country’s pernicious history of racism. The state even tried to extend these speech restrictions to private companies, but that got tossed out by a federal court.

Seeking to control what people teach at public universities is impossibly dystopian and grim. It’s also the logical endpoint of what conservatives have wanted forever: public money free from the conditions that used to go along with taking public money—that religious institutions shouldn’t be funded with taxpayer dollars and groups that receive public money shouldn’t be able to discriminate.

Dismantling that line between church and state and enshrining bigotry into law has been quite a successful project of religious conservatives. They prevailed in an Iowa case where a student group at a public university, taking public dollars, excluded a gay student from leadership and won in court. They scored their biggest victory this past Supreme Court term in Carson v. Makin: The justices ruled that K-12 private religious schools can get public tuition money. And it’s just this sort of thing that allows a Christian K-12 school in Florida to take $1.6 million in public money while having a policy that they will expel LGBTQ students.

Conservatives have always embraced schools like Bob Jones University and Liberty University that completely control their students’ behavior and speech. The former went up to the Supreme Court in 1983 to fight for the right to receive IRS tax-exempt status while maintaining a policy of only admitting white students. The university lost. Bob Jones University also banned interracial dating until 2000.

Rolling back abortion rights is just the latest weapon in the religious right’s ever-growing arsenal. When you control what people can do, it’s just a short hop to controlling what they can say. When bans prohibit “aiding or abetting” an abortion, such as that in Texas SB 8, it directly leads to controlling speech. For example, can you donate to an abortion fund if you live in Texas? In theory, that should never be restricted. Donating money is free speech and is therefore protected under Citizens United v. FEC and is one of the sacred tenets of modern conservatism.

But modern conservatism has become very comfortable with “free speech for me, but not for thee,” and they’ve captured enough of the federal courts that they’ll continue to get their way. Meanwhile, expect more public university systems in red states to start being tentative, worried, and self-censored when talking about reproductive rights or racial justice. Idaho and Florida may have started this trend, but it certainly won’t end there.