Portrait of a “Harrasser”? Or an Innocent Victim of Bias Against Intelligent Design? In Testimony from Co-workers at JPL, the Real David Coppedge Stands Up
From its first day, the David Coppedge v. Jet Propulsion Lab trial going on in Los Angeles has presented two dramatically different pictures of Coppedge himself. Perhaps the case is merely about a difficult employee, disruptively “pushing his religion,” intelligent design — finally laid off amid general downsizing, as JPL echoed by the Darwin lobbyists at the National Center for Science Education maintain.
Or as Coppedge himself claims, perhaps it’s about an agreeable and competent employee who was demoted and dismissed for reasons having nothing to do with his actual job performance — but rather, first and foremost, for having stepped on a land mine called intelligent design. Coppedge says his trouble began when he innocently lent a pro-ID DVD to a hostile coworker and, as a direct result, fell afoul of supervisor Greg Chin.
If Coppedge genuinely was hard to get along with — a “harasser,” who made others uncomfortable with his brusque, confrontational manner — this should have become clear by now, three weeks into the trial. It hasn’t. Instead, Coppedge’s attorney has presented as witnesses a series of individuals who worked with him and don’t necessarily agree with him about intelligent design or related matters (politics, religion), but who agree that Coppedge was an entirely inoffensive and capable colleague.
This leaves as the only reasonable conclusion that JPL punished him, in the final analysis, for his views on intelligent design. The NASA agency had a sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on ID. Coppedge “told,” then sued when he was penalized for it, and in the end lost his job over the whole matter.
So, to the witnesses.
Jennifer Kesterson, now retired from JPL, worked closely with Coppedge under Chin as an information technology (IT) specialist. Coppedge’s lawyer, William Becker, asked her if his client was “pushy.”
“Not at all,” said Kesterton. “Intense?” Again, “No.” If he talked about politics, it was all “quiet, very polite, courteous, very respectful.” When the subject of pro-ID DVDs came up it was equally casual and low key. How exactly did it happen? Kesterton recalled one occasion:
Very late in the day, when all of us were standing around chitchatting. It was a late Friday. Very casual and Bruce and Marissa and I were standing at the entrance of this large office just chatting, and he just stopped by and casually said, “If you would like to look at these over the weekend.” It was very casual, and I just happened to be there.
Another colleague, Ron Aguilar, was an IT security engineer at JPL working, likewise, under Greg Chin with David Coppedge. Like Coppedge, he served in the role of a “team lead” — the designation Coppedge lost when he was demoted. Aguilar in his testimony sketched out complicated and technical upstairs-downstairs conflicts at JPL — literally, pitting one floor against another — that help explain Coppedge’s vulnerability when he first got into hot water over the ID issue. Were it not for other, genuinely difficult personalities at JPL who were gunning for him, Coppedge might still be employed at the federally funded space agency.
As Aguilar explained, Coppedge had resisted moves by another employee, Pam Woncik, to grant computer system access to foreign scientists — something that violated federal security regulations, and that created potential security breaches that Coppedge and Aguilar had to find a way to close.
Obviously, none of this reflected negatively on Coppedge’s job performance. Quite the contrary. Nor did it have anything to do with intelligent design. But it aids in clarifying why, when it came to time to draw indictments against him — in the form of negative performance evaluations — Coppedge’s enemies at JPL had no trouble finding other staff happy to criticize him.
Still, Aguilar said in his testimony that, on hearing of Coppedge’s demotion, “I was shocked.” He explained, “I didn’t understand it because I didn’t see where David had done anything [wrong]. I mean, technically he was good at what he did, as far as I could [tell] from my experience with him. He and I worked very well together. And in terms of security we were probably the premier mission at JPL.”
Aguilar said that Coppedge didn’t keep his views about ID or about religion or politics secret, but neither did he ever let these interfere with work. Attorney William Becker asked about the occasional DVD that Coppedge screened.
Q. That was during lunchtime?
A. That was during lunchtime. That’s correct.
Q. Did he ever show them during work hours?
Q. Did he ever interrupt your work, when he talked to you about religion?
Q. Was he pushy?
A. No, not at all.
Q. Would you characterize him as intense?
Aguilar never felt that Coppedge was trying to “change [his] religious views in any way.” On ID, he was the very opposite of pushy or confrontational.
“He just came up to me and said, there is some really nice research that has been done,” Aguilar recalled. Coppedge mentioned two videos in particular, Unlocking the Mystery of Life and The Privileged Planet.
He just asked me if I would be interested in viewing them. I said, definitely because I have a degree in biology so definitely. Unlocking the Mystery of Life is an excellent video on the actual way the body builds protein structures, in each cell in the body.
Coppedge asked if “I was interested in owning some of the DVDs. I said, I was very interested in it.” Did this interfere with work at all, take time away from the task at hand? “No,” Aguilar said.
Another colleague, Bruce Elgin, was team lead of JPL’s “help-desk,” which assigned members of the System Administration team, like Coppedge, to address technical issues with workstations or a network. He elaborated on the workplace rivalries and power struggles, in which Coppedge figured only as an innocent victim.
Typically for a government-academic bureaucracy, “Sometimes individuals want to build up their own fiefdom or center of importance or support, just for their own agendas or importance for themselves.” This led to difficulties with Pam Woncik, mentioned earlier, difficulties that supervisor Greg Chin himself didn’t have the skills as a manager to effectively work through. Chin could offer only “more superficial types of actions that didn’t really resolve the real problems that were there.”
Some of the byzantine office politics are hard to follow. The key point is that Coppedge, when he ran up against colleagues who didn’t like his views on ID, was left unprotected from reprisals. Certainly, he had done nothing to provoke anyone.
Elgin, like Jennifer Kesterton and Ron Aguilar, said that Coppedge’s interests in ID, in politics and in religion did not interfere with work. Interactions he had with colleagues were “consensual.” He didn’t try to “convert” anyone. Coppedge and Elgin disagreed on politics but in “an agreeable manner.” When intelligent design came up, it was, once more, strictly casual — so casual that Elgin wasn’t entirely sure if ID was even the actual theme of the DVD.
Q. Do you recall how he approached you on the subject?
A. I think just [by] asking me if I might be interested in this thing. It seems more likely it was intelligent design and that I might be interested in looking at it. And actually, if that was the case then I think that I could well have thought I might have a chance to look at it. But in the rush of things I was doing there, I didn’t get around to it.
Q. Were you offended by him offering you a DVD?
None of these three witnesses had any apparent stake in protecting Coppedge or doing anything other than to present an honest portrait of what he was like to be around. JPL is under the burden of showing it was not “what Coppedge said” — his advocacy of intelligent design — but “how he said it,” in an aggressive, evangelizing, harassing style that disrupted the workplace.
If JPL’s picture of him were accurate, his coworkers should have given a unified picture of him as a hard guy to work with. They emphatically haven’t done that, from which a reasonable person draws the inference that it is indeed “what he said” — his mildly expressed support for intelligent design — that got David Coppedge in so much trouble at JPL.
And this, as we’ve said all along, furnishes an illuminating example of how Big Science enforces the “consensus,” that we keep hearing so much about from Darwin defenders, against intelligent design.