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Professor Faces Pressure Over Pro-Choice Views at U.S. University

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

The sign Dr. Kay posted on her office door that caused her to be targeted. Photo Credit: The Cut

Political polarization as a result of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in its 2023 Dobbs Decision continues to have an impact on college campuses around the country. On November 20th, Endangered Scholars Worldwide (ESW) became aware of new evidence filed in Dr. Tamara Kay’s defamation case against a University of Notre Dame Catholic student newspaper, The Irish Rover. According to Nell Gluckman’s article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education on November 10th, a number of emails, text messages, and recordings made public as a part of the trial show a concerted effort on behalf of the Rover and its staff to oust Professor Kay from her position at the University of Notre Dame on grounds of her pro-choice activism and social media comments.

Dr. Kay is a professor of Global Affairs and Sociology, whose area of research interests include trade, labor, social movements, global and transnational sociology, sociology of culture, and global health, including reproductive health and rights. Kay has been teaching at the University of Notre Dame since 2016 and has been a tenured professor at the Keough School of Global Affairs and the Department of Sociology since 2021. Recently, she was targeted by an anti-abortion campaign led by faculty, students, and alumni, who believe that Kay’s pro-choice views should not be tolerated by the University.

In August 2022, state lawmakers in Indiana passed legislation that created a near-total ban on abortion. The law went into effect on September 15th, 2022, but was suspended a week later due to ongoing legal disputes. On the initial day that the abortion ban became operative, Professor Kay posted a sign on her office door, which encouraged students who needed information on healthcare to reach out via her non-work e-mail. Kay later said that she put the sign up because she was concerned the state-wide ban on abortion would prevent rape survivors from being able to find appropriate healthcare. However, the sign and Kay’s pro-choice social media activity quickly drew the attention of the Catholic-conservative student publication, the Rover, which published an article accusing Kay of providing abortion assistance. Following the Rover’s article, Dr. Kay received a significant amount of hate mail, some sent by Notre Dame alumni and including death threats and threats of rape.

In May of 2023, Kay sued The Irish Rover for defamation. Documents recently made public as part of the ongoing litigation point towards active cooperation between some faculty, students, and alumni towards pressuring the school to fire Kay, despite her tenure status. Evidence includes correspondences between faculty and students, including a text message that read “There needs to be a coordinated assault on the Tamara Kay issue”. Additional emails revealed that some alumni groups contacted the President of the university and the Dean of Keough School, stating their wish to see Professor Kay moved to another institution, whose core values would fit Kay’s pro-choice stance.

Kay remains unsatisfied with the response of the university administration, which she claims have been unwilling to fully prevent harassment directed against her. Members of the university administration have rejected these claims. It is also reported that after meetings with administrators, who voiced concerns about Kay’s tweets and the sign on her office door, Kay voluntarily took down the sign and deleted her tweets about abortion and emergency contraception. A spokesperson for the school said that the school never intended to restrict Kay’s expression on abortion or any other topic but noted that there could be issues of liability as “a reasonable person could understand Professor Kay to be giving medical advice”. An official statement from the University in 2010 underlines the university’s stance against abortion, stating that the University of Notre Dame remains closely aligned with the position of the Catholic Church when it comes to abortion rights, which is based on “the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”

ESW is deeply concerned with the ongoing campaign against Professor Tamara Kay and calls on the members of the public, as well as The University of Notre Dame, to respect Professor Kay’s fundamental right to free expression, and her right to freely conduct her scholarly work without the fear of persecution or prosecution. Professor Kay’s case constitutes only a part of the broader trend of increased pressure against the free expression of academics and students all around the United States. The right to academic freedom and the status of universities as one of the main sites to exercise that right are indispensable elements of democracy. Especially during times of increased political polarization, maintaining public debate and open dialogue in the broader society is conditional on upholding the integrity of universities.

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