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Governor of Tennessee Duped by Darwin Lobby Rhetoric about the Need to Protect Academic Freedom

Casey Luskin

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Tennessee teachers and students won a huge victory last week with the passage of an academic freedom bill which permits teachers to help “students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” While the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, didn’t veto the bill, he also didn’t do much of anything to support its passage. In fact, he issued a statement which suggests he has bought into some of the Darwin Lobby’s false rhetoric against the bill:

I have reviewed the final language of HB 368/SB 893 and assessed the legislation’s impact. I have also evaluated the concerns that have been raised by the bill. I do not believe that this legislation changes the scientific standards that are taught in our schools or the curriculum that is used by our teachers. However, I also don’t believe that it accomplishes anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.

The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.

There are two main problems with the statement.

First, he suggests the bill doesn’t “accomplis[h] anything that isn’t already acceptable in our schools.” That’s not correct. Working with teachers nationwide, we have long observed a pattern where teachers commonly feel intimidated into silence when covering controversial scientific topics. Indeed, before Louisiana passed its academic freedom law in 2008, a survey of Louisiana teachers showed:

  • 48% of teachers were afraid that “teaching controversial material could affect [their] … tenure, salary, promotions, or job security.”
  • 50% did not feel free to critique evolution.
  • 55% felt “intimidated regarding the teaching of the controversy surrounding origins.”

So just because state science standards officially encourage critical thinking, that doesn’t mean a climate of academic freedom exists where teachers feel free to teach about different scientific views on topics like evolution. Tennessee’s academic freedom bill will give teachers the confidence that they can teach topics like evolution objectively without having to worry about losing their jobs.

Second, Governor Haslam claims the bill fails to “bring clarity and not confusion,” but the bill itself is perfectly clear on what it protects and doesn’t protect:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

If there is any confusion, it comes not from the text of the bill, but rather from critics who have been putting out loads of misinformation about the bill. As one of many examples, today I was part of a panel on NPR’s “To the Point” where Josh Rosenau of the NCSE claimed the bill opens classroom up to “creationism,” “pseudoscience,” or “nonscience.” But reading the text of the bill, we see that none of those are protected under the bill.

So Governor Haslam is right that the there is a lot of “confusion” over this bill–but it’s not the fault of the bill. With critics constantly telling the world this law allows the teaching of “creationism,” no wonder some folks feel confused about the law’s effect. The NCSE’s spokespersons would do a better job of fulfilling their mission to keep “creationism” out of classrooms if they’d stop promoting the falsehood that academic freedom bills like the one in Tennessee allow the teaching of creationism.

Ironically, the talking points of critics show exactly why the law is needed. By constantly telling people that teaching the scientific evidence for and against major evolutionary claims is tantamount to teaching “creationism,” teachers are being intimidated into silence. Academic freedom laws like the one just enacted in Tennessee reassure teachers that they can in fact teach legitimate scientific critiques of evolution without teaching creationism, and without having to worry about losing their jobs.


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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