BOISE, Idaho -- In the first lawsuit of its kind, the American Civil Liberties Union July 31 filed a free speech lawsuit against the Idaho Board of Education for rejecting a professor's grant proposal because it deals with lesbian and gay issues.
The ACLU's lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho in Boise, argues that the board's rejection violated the academic freedom of Dr. Peter Boag, a historian at Idaho State University who submitted a proposal to research gay and lesbian communities in the Pacific Northwest between 1870 and 1920. Since the board's decision involves public funds, the ACLU said, the First Amendment's free speech protections apply.
"The pursuit of knowledge must not become victim to a popularity contest," said John Hummel, cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Idaho. "The board acted out of the fear that some might find Boag's proposal too controversial, which is the same as allowing politics to determine what is appropriate for academics to explore.
"Like a town square crier, a professor's academic freedom is protected speech that is unconstitutional to censor because of its content," added Hummel. "Suppressing a study because it deals with controversial or unpopular issues is viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."
Sixteen funding proposals were recommended to the Idaho education board the previous grant cycle. But when the members convened in April to decide awards, only 15 projects were approved, totaling $439,000 in state money. By a vote of 5 to 3, the board rejected Boag's proposal for $30,000, even though it earned the recommendation of the board's higher education council and high marks from Boag's academic peers.
"Like that of my colleagues, the proposal I submitted sought to document and analyze an unexplored area of history," said Boag. "The only difference was that my research didn't pass their political litmus test."
The board's rejection touched off a wave of condemnation across the state and in academic circles around the country. At Idaho State University (based in Pocatello, Idaho), the Faculty Council passed a resolution saying that the vote was motivated by "an anticipated negative public reaction to funding a project dealing with homosexuality," and that it "produces a chilling effect on academic freedom."
A week later, the American Association of University Professors, the nation's largest organization of professors, fired off a letter urging the board to reconsider the grant rejection, saying the government's use of an ideological test is "plainly inconsistent with fundamental academic values."
While Boag's research proposal, "Progressive Politics and Social Control in the Rural and Urban Northwest, 1870-1920," may be unexplored territory, the last decade has seen gay academic studies flourish on university campuses nationwide in disciplines as broad as literature, philosophy, law and biology.
But those studies have taken root, by and large, in the academic soil of the more elite private colleges like Yale and Harvard, or at public universities located in large urban areas like New York City and Chicago. In this way, Dr. Boag's research represents one of the first skirmishes as the burgeoning field of gay studies moves beyond its current enclave.
"This is one of the first times I've seen a gay-related research project suppressed in such an overt manner," said Jennifer Middleton, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project based in New York. "We hope that Boag's lawsuit will be a warning to other universities that anti-gay prejudice has no place in academics."