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Discrimination Against Intelligent Design Film Cited in California Science Center Lawsuit

Casey Luskin

More details are now coming out from the lawsuit filed against the California Science Center by the American Freedom Alliance (AFA), filed in the Superior Court for the State of California for the County of Los Angeles (Central District). AFA’s lawsuit contends that the California Science Center engaged in viewpoint discrimination when cancelling AFA’s contract to screen the pro-intelligent design (ID) documentary Darwin’s Dilemma at the Center’s IMAX Theatre on October 25th. As discussed below, AFA’s complaint contains e-mails from California Science Center staff revealing that the Center cared more about how it would be perceived by ID-critics in the scientific community for renting its facilities to screen a pro-ID video than it did about AFA’s constitutional rights.

The abrupt cancellation of AFA’s event was first reported by the Los Angeles Daily News, and has previously been covered by Discovery Institute here, here, here, and here.

The complaint corrects a common misstatement about this case, accurately noting, “Discovery Institute was not a party to the contract between the Plaintiff [California Science Center] and Defendants [American Freedom Alliance] for the screening of ‘Darwin’s Dilemma.'”

E-mails Show Viewpoint Discrimination
Most importantly, as noted the complaint contains e-mail documentation exposing the actual reason that the California Science Center cancelled AFA’s contract to screen Darwin’s Dilemma. As the complaint shows, the California Science Center’s e-mail officially cancelling AFA’s contract unashamedly reveals that the Center was most concerned about its “reputation” in the scientific community and its “relationship” to other scientific groups after having rented its facilities to a pro-ID group, throwing AFA’s constitutional rights under the bus. The complaint states:

On October 6, 2009, Christina M. Sion, Vice President of Food & Event Services at CENTER, (hereinafter “SION”) wrote an e-mail to DAVIS [President of the AFA] stating that “we are cancelling your event at the California Science Center.” SION’s e-mail stated:

“It has come to our attention that in a press release issued October 5, 2009 by the American Freedom Alliance, it is inferred that the California Science Center as [sic] a Smithsonian Institute affiliate is co-sponsoring the Darwin Debates. Your event is a private event held on the California Science Center property but is not affiliated in any way with the California Science Center or the Smithsonian. This press release has damaged our relationship with the Smithsonian and the reputation of the California Science Center. According to the Event Policies and Procedures that you signed to reserve the date for the event, you agreed to submit all promotional materials to the California Science Center for review and approval prior to printing or broadcast. Because you did not obtain this approval and the press release has had significant negative ramifications, we are canceling your event at the California Science Center.” (emphases added)

Before going further we must clear away some errors in Sion’s e-mail. First, the October 5th press release referenced by Sion wasn’t issued by the AFA, it was issued by Discovery Institute, and AFA had no control over that press release. Second, Discovery Institute’s October 5th press release didn’t claim that the California Science Center was “co-sponsoring the Darwin Debates” but quite plainly stated, “The screening is sponsored and hosted by the American Freedom Alliance.” Third, Discovery Institute’s press release was hardly inaccurate to observe that the California Science Center is affiliated with the Smithsonian. The California Science Center has a conspicuous page on its website, “Smithsonian Affiliate Designation,” touting at great length the Center’s status as “a Smithsonian Affiliate” that enjoys the “benefits of becoming a Smithsonian Affiliate,” even boasting that, for certain exhibits, the Center “is now authorized to use the tag line ‘in association with the Smithsonian Institution’.”

Thus, the October 5th Discovery Institute press release which Sion complains about not only wasn’t issued (or controlled) by the AFA, but it also wasn’t inaccurate. Thus, AFA’s lawsuit correctly notes that “The contract states nothing concerning promotions of the event by third parties nor requiring the monitoring, oversight, management, or control of third-party promotions.”

That being the case, what was the real reason the California Science Center cancelled AFA’s contract?

Sion’s e-mail unwittingly also exposes the real reason AFA’s contract was apparently cancelled: The California Science Center was worried that publicity about its rental of facilities to screen a pro-ID video had “damaged our relationship with the Smithsonian and the reputation of the California Science Center.” And consider Sion’s closing statement: “Because you did not obtain this approval and the press release has had significant negative ramifications, we are canceling your event at the California Science Center.

Just what are those “negative ramifications”? And do they offer just cause to breach a contract? We’ve already established that the AFA didn’t need approval for a third party publicity statement it didn’t control. All that’s left is the California Science Center’s concern that public knowledge that a pro-ID event was going forward was perceived to have “significant negative ramifications.”
Is that a valid reason to cancel a contract? The California Science Center is a department of the State of California that rents its facilities for use by private groups. As a government facility, the First Amendment prohibits it from refusing to rent to private groups based upon a distaste for the viewpoint of the speech expressed by the group. That’s called viewpoint discrimination. Yet the California Science Center seems more concerned about purported “damage” to its “reputation” and perceived “negative ramifications” stemming from AFA’s pro-ID viewpoint than it does with AFA’s constitutional rights to express that viewpoint at a government-owned forum. AFA appears to have a strong case that the Center engaged in viewpoint discrimination.

(It goes without saying that the California Science Center has long-hosted exhibits promoting evolution. I personally remember visiting the Center in elementary school when it was known as the “California Museum of Science and Industry.” My public elementary school took a trip to the museum and we were taught about the evolution of dinosaurs.)

Local Academics Complained about the AFA’s Pro-ID Event
AFA’s complaint further elaborates on the “negative ramifications” felt by the California Science Center. It turns out that various Los Angeles area academics had expressed strong opposition to the California Science Center renting its facilities for a pro-ID event. As Hilary Schor, USC professor of English, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies and Law stated in an e-mail that was forwarded to a curator at the California Science Center, “I’m less troubled by the freedom of speech issues than why my tax dollars which support the California ‘Science’ Center are being spent on hosting religious propaganda“.

AFA’s lawsuit complaint aptly observes that “[t]his sentiment, written by a law professor, sadly demonstrates a purposeful indifference to constitutional protections enshrined and safeguarded in the Bill of Rights.”

The complaint also shows that a curator at another Los Angeles area museum expressed angst that the California Science Center was renting its facilities for a pro-ID event.

There is also evidence that the Smithsonian Institution itself intervened in the situation and may have pressured AFA to cancel the event. After detailing the Smithsonian’s long history of opposing academic freedom for intelligent design, the complaint quotes a Los Angeles Daily News article where Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer acknowledges that he “spoke” with the California Science Center after becoming “concerned by the inference … there was a showing of the [Darwin’s Dilemma] film at a Smithsonian branch.” Kremer’s statements directly suggest that the Smithsonian opposed any “inference” that it was connecting to the showing of Darwin’s Dilemma.

AFA’s lawsuit complaint sheds more light on what occurred. The day before Chris Sion cancelled AFA’s event, Smithsonian Affiliates Director Harold Closter wrote to a California Science Center staff member that expressing concern that a “press release” (the one issued by Discovery Institute) made it appear as if the Smithsonian was linked to AFA’s event. He wrote, “We are concerned that [the EVENT] not be represented as a Smithsonian event or program or anything with which we have any involvement.”

Feeling pressured by the Smithsonian, it seems that the California Science Center decided that the easiest way to solve the problem was simply to breach contract and cancel AFA’s event.
Based upon this and other evidence, the lawsuit argues that the California Science Center’s complaint about press releases “was contrived as a pretext by Defendants for cancelling the event when the real reason for cancelling it derived from hostility to the viewpoints expressed in ‘Darwin’s Dilemma’ … By asserting a breach of contract argument, Defendants sought to shroud themselves within a cloak of plausible deniability for violating Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”

And all AFA wanted to do was rent a facility to show a pro-ID video. Imagine that.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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