(CNSNews.com) - A documentary released earlier this year may be partly responsible for "academic freedom bills" now advancing at the state level. Those bills are intended to strengthen the free speech rights of those who seek to examine the full range of views on evolutionary theory.
The film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" suggests that biologists, chemists, and astronomers have been censored, denied tenure, and even fired in some cases after raising questions about Charles Darwin's 150-year-old theory that life results from random mutations and natural selection.
The film has prompted some states to consider legislation that would insulate teachers and students who believe there is evidence of "design" in nature, Walt Ruloff, a co-producer for the film, told Cybercast News Service.
In fact, within the next two weeks, one Louisiana state legislator expects his bill to reach the desk of Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) where it will become law. The Louisiana Science Education Act, which passed by a vote of 35-0 in the state senate, has broad bipartisan support, said Rep. Ben Nevers, the bill's chief sponsor.
"Some teachers are afraid to teach certain subject matters, and they want to know the materials they bring into the class have been approved, and I think this piece of legislation provides them with protection. It also brings consistency to the school systems in our state."
Nevers told Cybercast News Service he has not seen the film "Expelled" and is more concerned about keeping the school curriculum up to date with scientific advances.
"This bill does not allow the teaching of any religious belief, or religious theory, so if it's not science...then certainly it couldn't be brought into our classrooms in Louisiana," he added .
Caroline Crocker, a biological scientist who appears in "Expelled," testified before the Louisiana House Committee on Education earlier this month.
"Our freedom to think and consider more than one option is part of what has given America her competitive edge in the international marketplace of ideas," she said in her testimony. "The current denial of academic freedom rights for those who are judged politically incorrect may put this in jeopardy.
"But I am also aware that Louisiana prides itself on being a melting pot for all, where people are comfortable with, and respectful of, divergent viewpoints," she continued. "Therefore, I am in favor of SB 733, which will help ensure the intellectually honest consideration of innovative, and possibly unpopular, scientific theories.
So far this year, legislation has been introduced in Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama and Michigan as well as in Louisiana.
"We are very excited to have seen some movement here," Ruloff said. "The idea behind the academic freedom bills is to allow teachers and students to ask critical questions and to weigh both sides of the scientific debate on evolution without fear of reprisal. Hopefully more states will follow suit and we can begin to see a change in the orthodoxy that has taken hold."
The bills vary somewhat in their language but they all proceed from a central theme, Casey Luskin, a scholar with the Discovery Institute, explained in an interview.
"The legislation protects the rights of teachers and students to discuss a wide range of scientific topics in the classroom, even if they happen to be critical of modern Darwinism," he said. "We would like to see evolution taught in an unbiased fashion and also want students to learn how to think like scientists and to weigh the evidence for and against."
The Discovery Institute is a non-partisan think tank based in Seattle, Wash., that supports research by scientists and other scholars who challenge various aspects of Darwinian theory -- and who are "developing the scientific theory known as Intelligent Design." The institute "encourages schools to improve science education by teaching students more fully about the theory of evolution, including the theory's scientific weaknesses as well is its strengths."
To this end, the institute has posted a model academic freedom bill on the Internet that provides teachers and students with protection at the elementary, high school and graduate school level.
The proposed legislation reads in part as follows: "No K-12 public school teacher or teacher or instructor in any two-year or four-year public institution of higher education, or in any graduate or adult program thereof, shall be terminated, disciplined, denied tenure, or otherwise discriminated against for presenting scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views regarding biological or chemical evolution..."
Some state officials sought input from Discovery, while others went in their own direction, Luskin said. The legislation currently under consideration is narrowly tailored so students can be exposed to the evidence both for and against evolution without getting into alternative theories like Intelligent Design, he added. Moreover, unlike the Discovery proposal, the pending state bills only cover the grades K-12 and do not touch on four-year colleges or graduate institutions, Luskin said.
While the publicity connected with "Expelled" has opened a nationwide dialogue on free speech within the scientific community, the various state proposals should not be seen as somehow advancing or promoting Intelligent Design, he said.
In fact, the Discovery Institute actually opposed the attempt of Dover, Pa., school officials to require the teaching of Intelligent Design in their school district back in 2005. (A federal judge reversed that policy in December of that same year in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.)
"Our priority with Intelligent Design is to see it advance as science and not as political hot potato," Casey said. "We want to see Intelligent Design debated by scientists, not by politicians. When the issue becomes politicized, that tends to result in increased persecution of scientists supportive of Intelligent Design and in fact this is exactly what we have seen in the wake of Dover."
Meanwhile, in Florida -- where there appeared to be significant momentum behind the Evolution Academic Freedom Act just a few weeks ago -- the state legislature ultimately failed to agree on a final bill.
There is no evidence to suggest that any teacher in Florida ever lost their job as result of advocating a particular position on evolution, Jill Chamberlain, a spokesperson for Republican House Speaker Marco Rubio, said in an interview.
Therefore, there was some concern in the Florida House that the Senate bill was far too expansive and would have allowed some teachers to stray from the approved curriculum, Chamberlain said. For this reason, the bill was rewritten on the house side, Chamberlain said.
With the legislature out of session for the remainder of the year and with term limitations kicking in for some of the bill's supporters, including Speaker Rubio, its future is uncertain, she observed.
Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers attended a private screening of "Expelled" in Tallahassee, where they met with the film's producers and with Ben Stein, the former presidential speechwriter-turned-Hollywood actor who serves as the film's narrator. At the time, Stein expressed support for the Florida's Evolution Academic Freedom Act. (See interview with Ben Stein.)
Some critics, however, question the need for such legislation.
"What are teachers not able to teach now that will be able to teach as a result of these bills?" asked Joshua Rosenau, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). "What is it exactly that these bills are supposed to protect? It seems to me like the teachers already have most of the rights that these (bills) protect, and so there certainly is a suspicion that these are intended to open the door to creationism and other topics that don't belong in science classes."
Moreover, the kind of instruction that would occur on the high school level, if the bills become law, would be counterproductive, Rosenau argued. The presentation of alternative viewpoints that stray from the scientific consensus is better suited for the college environment, he said.
"Students at high school don't have background to understand the scientific debate because they haven't learned the basics yet, Rosenau observed. High school should be about what the scientists agree on so the students are prepared. That's where this whole idea behind these bills gets weird. A 101 class in college is where it's more appropriate to get into where scientists who are on the cutting edge have disputes. Instead of protecting rights, this could be about promoting bad pedagogy.
Rosenau's organization has been highly critical of the "Expelled" film saying the accusations of scientific censorship are greatly overblown. An entire Web site is devoted to exposing what the NSCE views as "anti-science propaganda."
For her part, Crocker, the biologist featured in the film, has responded to the NSCE's arguments. She says the NSCE includes numerous inaccuracies of its own.
The NSCE's criticisms of the Louisiana bill do not hold up under close examination, and she encourages interested parties to read the bill.
"The legislation is fairly straightforward," she said in an interview. "Teachers should be allowed to teach the science, and it specifically excludes the teaching of religion, so I don't see that as a problem. It [the Louisiana bill] just allows teachers to teach evidence for and against controversial theories while providing for academic freedom. To me that's a very good thing."
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