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How Smithsonian Institution Pressured the California Science Center

In my previous post in this series about the California Science Center (CSC), we saw that the CSC might not have rented its facilities to a pro-intelligent design (ID) group like the American Freedom Alliance (AFA) had they known about “the nature of the groups involved.” At the same time that the CSC learned that a pro-ID group had booked its facilities, on the other side of the country, head staff at the Smithsonian Institution were outraged that one of their affiliates was allowing a pro-ID event. The Smithsonian’s Chief Spokesperson, Linda St. Thomas, was so upset about CSC’s rental to a pro-ID group that she asked the Smithsonian’s Director of Affiliates, Harold Closter, to send a “cease and desist” letter to CSC:

This is one of our fears about affiliates. As you know, we cancelled an event about Intelligent Design (creationism) at MNH a couple years ago. It is against SI/MNH policy which is science and not religion. However, I have seen hundreds of twitters saying that SI is holding this premier, even though it is an affiliate in Calif. Can you tell them to cease and desist? (emphasis added)

Of course the ID event she claims the Smithsonian “cancelled … a couple years ago” was Discovery Institute’s screening of the premier of The Privileged Planet in 2005. But she’s incorrect in saying that the Smithsonian cancelled the event. It sure sounds as if she would have endorsed such a cancellation. However, if Smithsonian officials really had canceled the event, they probably would have found themselves facing a lawsuit similar to the one currently filed against CSC.

Aside from the fact that opposing free speech for ID (which St. Thomas blithely equates with “creationism”) is apparently the norm at the taxpayer-funded Smithsonian Institution, the main point to take from St. Thomas’s e-mail is that she wants the Smithsonian to bring the hammer down hard on the CSC for allowing a pro-ID event.

Randall Kremer, Director of Public Affairs for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, replies to St. Thomas by asking, “I am curious as to whether they were involved in the release and I am also curious as to how they came to be showing this film.” Kremer soon got an answer to his question.

Harold Closter later replies to this thread by describing his phone conversation with Shell Amega. “I just spoke with Shell Amega, VP of Communications for California Science Center,” he writes — but the next 2.5 lines are redacted. Why? Incidentally, in another instance of this e-mail, those 2.5 lines are accidentally disclosed unredacted, exposing something significant:

They had no knowledge of the press release and did not even know about the film showing — “Anyone can book our IMAX,” she said. They are, of course, concerned now and conferring on next steps.

We now know what those “next steps” would turn out to be. Under pressure from the Smithsonian for allowing a pro-ID event, the CSC caved in and canceled AFA’s contract. Closter’s e-mail then inspires further revealing commentary from Smithsonian staffers. They express shock — shock — that CSC would allow a pro-ID group to book an event:

  • Linda St. Thomas replies to an e-mail from Closter saying: “Wow, they let anybody rent their theatre!!! That leaves them open for problems, as I guess they are now finding out.” But the First Amendment holds that if a government body like CSC chooses to rent out its facilities to the public, then it must be willing to rent to “anybody” regardless of viewpoint.
  • Randall Kremer replies to St. Thomas and Closter, echoing the same sentiment: “As you know, the Smithsonian has certain regulations concerning what we show in our theaters and who we allow to appear at events or use our facilities. Sounds like their open-ended policy with regard to booking their IMAX theater has created some problems for them, and for us.” Again, the First Amendment requires that if the government is going to rent out its facilities, it must adopt an “open-ended” policy that does not discriminate against views it doesn’t like.
  • Kremer then forwards Closter’s e-mail to various other Smithsonian staff: “Copied below is Harold Closter’s update on the California Science Center. I hope the head of the science center is involved. I would be shocked if they did not have a policy regulating who can book their IMAX theater.” Again, Kremer’s words imply he feels AFA should not have been allowed to book CSC’s IMAX for a pro-ID event in the first place. He wants CSC to have “a policy regulating who can book” its facilities so pro-ID groups are disallowed, disregarding the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such actions are illegal, for “the government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys.”
  • Closter repeats all this in an e-mail attempting to reassure Richard Kurin — the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture — that CSC is still anti-ID and didn’t approve of the event: “CSC says they didn’t know about the scheduled film showing and that ‘anybody can book the IMAX theater.'”

Expressing the Smithsonian’s wrath, Closter wrote to Shell Amega of the CSC: “We are concerned that this not be represented as a Smithsonian event or program or anything with which we have any involvement.”

CSC was only too happy to comply with Closter’s directive. By canceling the AFA’s contract, CSC showed the world that it was not just anti-ID (nothing wrong with that), but opposed to free-speech for ID advocates. Something tells me that the Smithsonian Institution was pleased with this outcome.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, 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.



California Science CenterSmithsonian