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The California Science Center's Convenient Excuses: "Contractual Issues" or Viewpoint Discrimination?

Sometimes excuses just sound too convenient. Take, for instance, the California Science Center's excuse for abruptly cancelling a showing of Darwin's Dilemma last fall. According to top California Science Center (CSC) officials, the event was cancelled "because of issues related to the contract." But emails obtained by Discovery Institute pursuant to CSC's settlement of our lawsuit against them strongly show that CSC officials illegally discriminated against intelligent design (ID) and then tried to cover their tracks by claiming "contractual reasons" for the cancellation. This shouldn't come as a surprise to those familiar with the culture of intolerance fostered by many critics of ID. In this case, it's especially important since that culture is being funded by over millions of taxpayer dollars each year.

As a government funded organization that is a "department of the state of California," CSC is prohibited from practicing viewpoint discrimination--that is, discrimination based on the viewpoint that a certain group expresses. The Supreme Court emphasized this in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, stating: "It is axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys" (515 U.S. 819 (1995)). The reasons for this principle are obvious: the First Amendment prohibits the government from imposing its favored viewpoints and, on the flip side, squelching those which it disagrees with.

Fundamental liberty to express viewpoints freely in a government-sponsored forum is at stake here. The Supreme Court has prioritized this liberty, stating, "Viewpoint discrimination is thus an egregious form of content discrimination. The government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction." Id. Not only is the government prohibited from explicitly regulating speech, but it also may not regulate speech by denying the public forum to groups based on their viewpoints.

With this in mind, let's peer behind the scenes of when CSC decided to cancel the showing of Darwin's Dilemma.

In an email to Cynthia Pygin (a science center official), CSC's Vice President of Food and Event Services Chris Sion writes the following:

Hi Cynthia, We are having issues w/ a client who booked the IMAX for a private reception and they sent a press release inferring we were a sponsor - the main problem is that it is an anti-Darwin/creationist group. They referred to us as the west coast affiliate of the Smithsonian and it was all highly misconstrued and offensive.

Aside from the fact that Sion confuses (perhaps deliberately, perhaps out of ignorance) ID with creationism, she identifies the "main problem" with the showing of Darwin's Dilemma. Notably, it's not a problem of "contractual issues." Instead Sion says "the main problem is that it is an anti-Darwin/creationist group."

So let's review. A government organization is prohibiting a group's access to a government forum based on what? That group's particular viewpoint. And here, apparently, the "main problem" is the viewpoint of the group. Not contract issues. More clear-cut evidence of viewpoint discrimination would be hard to imagine.

Sion continues:

Jeff [Rudolph, CSC President and CEO] would like for you to help us review what our current policy is on this subject as his inclination is to cancel their contract. I have a feeling they will sue us... Is our language explicit enough for us to w/stand a lawsuit if it comes?

At this point it should be obvious that CSC official's use of "contract issues" was simply a flimsy excuse to cover up illegal viewpoint discrimination.

Notice that Jeff Rudolph, the CEO and President of the Science Center, had an "inclination" to cancel the contract before he even knew what his own contractual policies were. Needing to get rid of the "creationists," Rudolph set his team to work to find a contractual pretext. It's also noteworthy that Sion seems to realize that the CSC is treading on thin ice legally and isn't even sure that the contract contains language which would provide them with legal cover. Something else is going on here.

Ultimately, the email is revealing because (1) it outlines the illegal and discriminatory motivations of CSC in cancelling the event and (2) it gives a snapshot of CSC officials frantically searching for some excuse to cover their tracks. And they found a decent one. After all, "contractual issues" are common, boring, plausible and oh so convenient. Too convenient.

But is there evidence that CSC directly admitted--perhaps behind closed doors--the real reason it cancelled AFA's event? It turns out the answer is yes! One disclosed e-mail reveals that Jeff Rudolph reassured the Jane Pisano, the CEO of CSC's neighboring Natural History Museum of LA County, by telling her that CSC cancelled the event due to disagreement with the viewpoint that would be expressed:

Jane Pisano, (our CEO) rang Jeff Rudolph the CEO of California Science Center last night and had a chat to him about the screening of the ID film at CSC's IMAX. They had in fact cancelled the event as being not in line with their mission to educate the public about science, so it is not going ahead (emphasis added)

So there you have it. Publicly, CSC talks about "contract issues," but privately, it's all about the fact that they didn't feel that an event that would challenge Darwin or promote ID was "in line with their mission"--in other words, they disagreed with the viewpoint expressed. While CSC's executives have every right to disagree with ID, as a government institution what they do not have the right to do is use that disagreement to suppress expression of the pro-ID viewpoint within the facilities they rent out to the public.

Whether or not you agree with ID, CSC's actions should trouble you. If they don't, try re-reading your constitution.

CSC's executives have every right to disagree with ID if they wish, but they cannot discriminate against the ability of ID proponents to have equal access to government facilities.