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Will ACLU Science Censorship Efforts Succeed in Court?

With nearly two months since closing arguments in Selman vs. Cobb County School District (North Atlanta, GA), the public awaits the decision of United States District Judge Clarence Cooper.

At issue in the case is the school board’s adoption of the following sticker (drafted by the school district’s attorney):

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

This seemingly innocuous, lawyer-drafted disclaimer may not be a satisfying statement about the scientific controversy over biological evolution and the chemical origin-of-life from a technical standpoint, yet it is bizarre to think that the sticker would amount to an evil and sinister threat to American liberty. But leave it to the ACLU: they sued the school district over it.

Neither the fact that the school board had eliminated its previous, unconstitutional policy that discouraged the teaching of Darwin’s theory, nor the fact that the board had adopted decidedly pro-Darwinian textbooks mattered to the ACLU. So long as students could study evolutionary theory and critically consider its claims, the ACLU saw a threat to its own preferred educational approach to the subject: dogmatically teach neo-Darwinism and censor anything to the contrary. The ACLU now favors censorship when it involves suppressing speech with which it strongly disagrees.

Particularly helpful to the ACLU in the November trial was the miserly defense of the sticker that was put up by the school district’s hired attorney, Linwood Gunn. Never did Gunn show a real willingness to go toe-to-toe with the ACLU and bring attention to the growing scientific controversies surrounding chemical and biological evolutionary theories. His arguments at the trial focused more upon reducing the “offense” of parents in the community. (See previous press releases here and here, discussing Gunn’s performance.) The judge’s ruling will show whether Gunn’s half-way, half-baked measures will be enough to persuade the judge, and at this point how the judge will decide the case is anything but certain. If anything, one has reason for some pessimism.

The important matter here is not the constitutional fate of stickers, but of the academic freedom of teachers and students to be able to discuss the arguments for and against controversial scientific theories, such as chemical and biological evolutionary theories. The ability of students to be able to think critically on such matters is far more important the placing of stickers in textbooks (if that is even desirable).

Over thirty doctoral scientists — including two dozen from Georgia — signed an amicus brief filed with the court, insisting students should remain free to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of chemical and biological evolutionary theories. (See the press release here.) Perhaps the arguments of these scientists will be enough to persuade the judge that academic freedom is to be preserved in ALL subjects — including science.

(Also see the press release: “ACLU Should Follow the Evidence Where it Leads, in Law and in Science.”)

Seth Cooper