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"Reporting" on the David Coppedge Trial, Time Magazine Joins the JPL Legal Team

Why bother having a trial at all? Reporting for Time magazine, Jeffrey Kluger read through the pre-trial briefs by David Coppedge's lawyer, William Becker, and from the Jet Propulsion Lab legal team. He obtained the documents by going on the National Center for Science Education website and clicking on the appropriate links.

If Kluger set foot in the Los Angeles courtroom last week, talked with anyone involved or even read about what happened there, you'll find no indication of it.

That is the extent of his reporting and, based on it, he concludes that NASA's JPL is justified in its own version of the events at issue. As Kluger sees it, Coppedge in interactions with coworkers was indeed "overbearing," "prickly," a "pain," who "pushed his religion" on others. JPL was right to demote and then fire him:

Groups like the intelligent design community are not always free to pick their poster children, and it's unfortunate for them that Coppedge is one of theirs.

But let's see here. The judge on the case, Ernest Hiroshige, read through the same documents and chose not to dismiss the suit as a nuisance. On the contrary, at the rate the trial is proceeding, owing to Hiroshige's careful, studious pace, this is going to consume probably five weeks of his life. A busy man, Judge Hiroshige obviously felt there was enough substance to Coppedge's complaint to justify hearing him out along with all the other principal players in the drama, weighing the evidence including the crucial personal testimony, and then drawing a conclusion.

The matter boils down to two alternative pictures of David Coppedge, presented respectively by Becker and by JPL. He was either a competent employee modestly sharing ideas with colleagues who turned on him when, in all innocence, he stepped on a landmine (intelligent design); or he was a difficult, not entirely competent employee, "so persistent, and...so judgmental" that supervisors finally lost patience with him.

The truth could also lie somewhere in between, though Coppedge has to show that he was penalized specifically for his pro-ID views (misunderstood by willfully ignorant colleagues as "religion"). It's a complicated case. Finding the facts is exactly what Hiroshige has undertaken to do, and what Time declines to do, preferring to automatically assume the validity of JPL's defense.

So Kluger leaves his readers uninformed of basic aspects of the case. In this morning's testimony, for example, Becker explored with Coppedge the sudden nosedive that Coppedge's employee evaluations took soon after a co-worker informed on him to supervisor Greg Chin for sharing a pro-intelligent design DVD. In a March 2, 2009, meeting, Chin shouted at him to "stop pushing his religion."

Up to that point, Coppedge's job reviews had been overwhelmingly positive. It's only after March 2, 2009, that his evaluations turned negative. JPL will have to show that there is no connection between the business about intelligent design and his being penalized with a demotion from his previous role as "team lead" of the SAs (systems administrators) on the Cassini Saturn mission.

Win or lose, JPL's attorneys will have a devil of a time avoiding the conclusion, by any fair observer or reporter, that JPL implicitly enforces conformity of speech and opinion among its employees. The place sounds positively Stalinist.

Thus, no one complained directly to David Coppedge about his loaning of videos to them. People who came out of the woodwork to complain did so only after the fact, during a star chamber-like investigation launched by Chin with an assist from Human Resources. In the investigation, Coppedge wasn't allowed to see specific accusations in order to rebut them and was informed of his demotion on the same day he received his written warning.

Meanwhile, as soon as he was told to stop talking about ID, he did. This was notwithstanding the fact that JPL at this point had suppressed pro-ID speech by Coppedge even as it never, ever imposed any limitation on anti-ID speech, which flourished in nasty abundance.

Jeffrey Kluger could have shared with his readers some of these wrinkles in JPL's smooth narrative. He chose not to do so.