#6 of Our Top-Ten Evolution Stories of 2013: How "Freethought" Bullies Threatened College into Cancelling Intelligent Design Course - Evolution News & Views

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#6 of Our Top-Ten Evolution Stories of 2013: How "Freethought" Bullies Threatened College into Cancelling Intelligent Design Course

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Published originally on December 10, 2013.

The outline of the story is now, sadly, a familiar one. Instructor wants to discuss intelligent design (ID). Intolerant atheists throw a fit. College quickly capitulates to the demands of the atheists. Instructor is censored.

The scenario played out again this past semester in Amarillo, Texas. I'll give the identities of the parties involved in just a moment, but for now, let's note some twists unique to the situation. According to internal communications, campus administrators feared that disgruntled atheists would stage a "disruption" if the ID class went forward. The atheist leader got so "intense" in arguing for Darwinian evolution over intelligent design that college staff called the police on him, apparently potentially concerned over their own safety. And get this: the intolerant atheists call themselves the "Freethought Oasis." You can't make this stuff up.

Well, here are the actors in this latest censorship play:

  • The Censored Instructor: Stanley Wilson
  • His Course: "Evolution vs. Intelligent Design"
  • The Textbook: Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism
  • The Cowardly College: Amarillo College ("AC")
  • The Intolerant Atheists: Jamie Farren and his "Freethought Oasis"
  • Accessories to the Cancellation of the Class: Texas Freedom Network and National Center for Science Education
While there are amusing sides to the case, I don't mean to make light of it. Tragically, we live at a time when schools and colleges, far from being calm sanctuaries of learning and discussion, seem beset by violent, disgruntled, disturbed individuals. (I write this as the report by Connecticut's state attorney on last year's Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has just been released.) While one certainly wishes that AC administrators had refused to capitulate to the forces of censorship -- Farren and his allies with the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education -- taking such a stand in today's atmosphere is easier said than done.

The tale begins when Stanley Wilson was approved by the AC administration to teach a course, "Evolution vs. Intelligent Design," during the Fall 2013 semester. This wasn't a science course. It was not a required course. It wasn't even a for-credit course. In fact, this course was not even for normal students. It was offered through the adult continuing education program. But the mere fact that ID would be discussed in a non-science, not-for-credit, continuing-education course was too much for Jamie Farren, then a part-time employee at Amarillo College, and the leader of Amarillo's local atheist group, the Freethought Oasis.

Around August 7, 2013, Farren called Kim Davis, Dean of Continuing Education at AC, to discuss his concerns about the "Evolution vs. Intelligent Design" class. On August 12, Davis met with Farren in person to hear his complaints, and the next day Davis submitted a report to Russell Lowery-Hart, Vice-President of Academic Affairs at AC. She wrote that Farren:

is a science guy with a narrow focus on fact, VERY intense. He shared with me that he is a founding member and current President of a group called "Freethought Oasis." He works part-time in the AC Science Enrichment Center. He says he probably can't take the class, but some of his buddies may enroll. That is why I think I haven't heard the last word from him. (emphasis in original)

Even at this early stage, Davis saw the irony in the name of Farren's group:

He gave me a card about the organization, the link to their website is below. I don't know where the free thought comes in though, seems more like the lack of...

http://freethoughtoasis.org/

Freethought Oasis provides community and connection for agnostics, atheists, skeptics, secularists, and freethinkers in Amarillo, the Texaspanhandle, and the surrounding area. (emphasis added)

Not content with airing his complaints to Davis, Farren soon thereafter spoke with another AC administrator on the phone. In a report sent to Lowery-Hart on August 15 about the call, Davis noted that Farren showed an "underlying desire to kill the class" and was "very aggressive." According to Davis's e-mail, Farren also complained that the ID class was "listed under the heading of Philosophy" -- more evidence, by the way, that ID critics aren't being entirely forthright when they claim they'd be content with ID being taught so long as it's not in a science course.

In communications by the college's staff, Farren's aggression became a consistent theme. That same day, Davis sent another report to Lowery-Hart about an incident that morning, when Farren confronted the instructor, Stanley Wilson, becoming "verbally aggressive" to the point that Wilson felt the need to file a police report:

Just letting you know that Jamie Farren confronted Stan Wilson, instructor of the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design class, in Warren Hall this morning between 10-10:30 a.m.

My observation is that Stan was visibly pretty shaken up. Jamie was aggressive with him like he was with Luke. Not physically aggressive, verbally aggressive. Stan came to Luke's office and Luke and I visited with him. I asked Stan if he wanted to make a police report, he did. I called AC Police and officer Ward came over to my office. He made it clear that there was no criminal act, but the report will be on file which is what I wanted...documentation. Officer Ward is going to find out who Jamie Farren's supervisor is, it may be Kathy Wetzel, not sure. He will be talking to her or whoever it is.

The police report noted there was "a possible threat to a new faculty member" since Farren had confronted Wilson at his office and, according to the report, Farren:
strongly believes that this course should not be offered at Amarillo College and wanted to know what gave Mr. Wilson the right to teach it. He continued saying that he was not going to be satisfied until he takes actions to get rid of the course. Mr. Wilson said his tone was threatening to him and somewhat agitated. There was no threat or action made personally toward Mr. Wilson just the course being taught. Mr. Wilson was upset about the conversation. Mr. [Farren] stated that several members of Freethought Oasis were enrolled in the class. This gave the impression to Mr. Wilson that there could possibly be some disruption or maybe a protest of some type the first day or two the course is taught on August 27 and 28.
But Farren pressed further. The next day, on August 16, he joined forces with the main Darwin lobby group in Texas, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), another euphemistically named outfit that regularly fights against academic freedom in evolution-education, to file a public records request about the course. TFN, you may recall, was in the news recently after successfully partnering with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the national Darwin-only lobbying group, to keep textbooks in Texas from following Texas state law by acknowledging the scientific debate about Darwinian theory.

Farren continued pursuing AC administrators, sending them links to various rebuttals to the course's textbook, Explore Evolution. Mr. Farren was apparently unaware that we have published strong responses to the critics he cited, such as the NCSE or John Timmer (at Ars Technica), showing that attempts to critique the textbook have been incredibly weak.

In any case, Farren's campaign worked. With the help of the TFN and the NCSE, whose deputy director Glenn Branch he would later thank for assistance, Farren and his group aggressively intimidated AC administrators. And the university caved. On August 20, Lowery-Hart told Farren in an e-mail, "We have cancelled the course." One assumes Lowery-Hart was hoping that would be the end of it. Farren wrote back thanking Lowery-Hart for his "willingness to stand for academic integrity," and put up a publicly accessible post on Facebook stating, "A local college course on Intelligent Design has been cancelled following my meeting with the VP of Academic Affairs of Amarillo College."

Here's a screenshot of Farren's publicly accessible Facebook post on August 20, 2013 celebrating the cancellation of the class:



Around nine days later, Freethought Oasis again celebrated on Facebook with the following:



That's right: For these folks, cancelling classes and depriving students of the opportunity to learn about intelligent design is something to celebrate. Their version of "academic integrity" is an Orwellian concept that bears no resemblance to true academic freedom.

Oh yes, and don't miss the nod to Glenn Branch of the NCSE for his apparent role in helping to bring about this result.

The Story Breaks, and Amarillo College Appeases "Disruptive" Farren by Lying to Him

With Farren boasting about the class's cancellation on Facebook, and a class full of students upset about the cancelled class, news of the cancellation soon leaked out. On August 24, the Amarillo Globe News broke the story in an op-ed written by columnist Dave Henry. The article criticized Amarillo College for cancelling the class, and quoted AC President Paul Matney explaining that the school did so because the administration feared "a disruption in the classrooms":

Matney said AC faculty and staff were concerned the subject matter could prove disruptive.

"We got word there was a group or a couple of folks, I don't know how many ... and we began to fear that the course could be ... or we would probably not be able to guarantee what is billed here as 'fun.' We really try at Amarillo College to work hard to create a positive experience. We do that whether it is algebra or poodle grooming," Matney said. "As we learned more about this, there appeared to be the possibility of a disruption in the classrooms.

"This is a very emotionally charged issue. We decided rather than it being a course where you come in and learn the pros and cons, this may turn into -- I don't want to say combative -- but a conflict situation where there could be a disruption."

The next day, August 25, Jamie Farren saw the article and wrote to Lowery-Hart:
Dr. Lower-Hart [sic],

There may be some interest in a public discussion of this issue after all:

Amarillo Globe News

I feel it is important for you to know that I did not go public with this, Sir. I was content to label this issue a "win" for academic integrity and science education, but I really cannot allow this article to go unanswered.

I have already sent a response to the author as well as the organizations who have been allied with me on this. You have been so helpful and honest during our exchanges that I wanted to give you a heads up.

Best Regards,

Jamie Farren
President
Freethought Oasis

Farren just told a falsehood: he did go public with the story, as we saw his publicly accessible Facebook posts, published as early as August 20, immediately after he learned the class was cancelled, gleefully boasting that they had successfully forced the class to be cancelled.

But Lowery-Hart wasn't entirely "honest" with Farren either, as we see in Lowery-Hart's reply to Farren, sent the following day:

Thanks for the heads up. I don't think the article was referring to you and your group; rather, anonymous phone calls promising disruption.
Lowery-Hart's claim that when they mentioned a "disruption," they weren't intending to refer to Farren and his group ("I don't think the article was referring to you and your group"), but rather to "anonymous" threats, was an outright falsehood designed to pacify Farren and keep him happy so he wouldn't cause further trouble for the school. In reality, e-mails we obtained through a public records request show Farren and his group were the only party that AC administrators feared might cause a "disruption," and when Paul Matney mentioned the potential for a "disruption" in the Globe News article, Farren's group was the only party the administration was worried about. For example:
  • (1) In an e-mail on August 22, while explaining the situation to the Regents of AC, Matney directly contradicted Lowery-Hart: "I became aware of this issue late Tuesday morning when Dr. Lowery-Hart briefed Ellen Green and me on communication he had with a gentleman who, representing a group of people, was disturbed by the class and indicated his intent to enroll students who might potentially create a disruptive environment in the classroom. -- a 'protest' if you will. It appeared to us that there would be a significant chance of conflict and disruption in this environment."
  • (2) Kim Davis did mention a phone call promising a disruption -- but it wasn't anonymous and she specifically mentioned "Jamie's people" as the party they feared would cause the problems: "Margie received a phone call today from a student that is enrolled in the class, Margie has the name. The woman told her that 'Jamie's people' will be secretly recording and taking video of the class. I consider this behavior obsessive and fanatical."
  • (3) Last but not least, Lowery-Hart directly contradicted his own statement to Farren when forwarding Farren's e-mail to Ellen Green, commenting on the Amarillo Globe News article:
    When Paul [Matney] strayed from the talking points of emotions are high on both sides and we want an honoring experience and then actually said their [sic] were people who were going to be disruptive, I was praying that the "disruptives" would just accept the win and move on. It doesn't appear that will happen.
    What exactly is Lowery-Hart saying here? He's saying that the administration had developed "talking points" for Paul Matney to tell the Amarillo Globe News reporter -- but those talking points deliberately didn't mention their fears that people would be "disruptive," probably because administrators were concerned this would lead to questions like "OK, who threatened to disrupt?" Evidently they were apprehensive about being forced to then mention the names of Farren and his "Freethought Oasis," potentially fanning the atheists' intolerance even further, thereby causing more trouble for the school.

    Instead, the talking points only had Matney saying they cancelled the class because of intense emotions "on both sides," meaning AC couldn't provide students with the "honoring experience" they'd hoped to provide. Of course it was only ID-opponents -- not "both sides" -- who were threatening to cause problems. In any case, Matney failed to stick to the preferred message, and let slip the fact that some folks had threatened disruption. And who were the "disruptives" Lowery-Hart mentioned, who he hoped would "just accept the win"? The context makes it quite clear: it's Farren and his group. In Farren's e-mail, which Lowery-Hart was forwarding to Green, Farren wrote, "I was content to label this issue a 'win' for academic integrity and science education, but I really cannot allow this article to go unanswered."

Thus, despite Lowery-Hart's claims to Farren to the contrary, he and other AC administrators believed Farren's group might be "disruptive," and supported cancelling the class on this basis.

The Triumph of the Heckler's Veto

Now you might feel disgust at the Amarillo College administrator for lying -- and that would be completely legitimate. But AC's reasons for lying are important to understand, because they reveal the bullying of the ID-critics: Farren and his aggressive activism scared the AC administration, and they were trying to placate Farren and keep him happy so he wouldn't throw more tantrums about the fact that a non-science, not-for-credit, continuing-education course might mention ID, thereby causing more headaches for the school. Or, for all they knew, perhaps even worse might happen.

Yet the decision to cancel the class wasn't entirely motivated by such reasonable worries. They did want to mollify Farren, but their overriding concern was probably media and PR concerns. This is seen in another e-mail from Lowery-Hart on August 25:

If we could have just stuck to the "we couldn't promise an honoring experience" we would have been fine.

Texas freedom network was training Jamie and his group on how to win the debate in class AND with the press. This was going to get really really ugly and in hindsight, the people who would have looked the most stupid would be the Hillside people AND US because they would have all run to us to have these people removed from the course and then we really would have a first amendment issue on our hands.

Specifically, Lowery-Hart feared how they might be perceived if they were forced to discipline a bunch of atheists who were trying to disrupt a class. This is seen in his August 22 e-mail to Paul Matney and Kim Davis:
As painful as this is, the reaction when students were removed by security from the class for speaking against intelligent design once the course started would produce potential state and nationwide coverage that would be worse.
Finally we are seeing some honest statements -- made in private -- about why AC cancelled the course. Of course, the reason any students might have had to be removed would not be simply because they were "speaking against intelligent design." There's never anything wrong with students expressing anti-ID views in class. Students would only be removed if they were causing a disruption that amounted to some kind of a safety threat or made the normal functioning of the class impossible. Lowery-Hart figured (probably correctly) that the pro-Darwin media wouldn't make that distinction, and would falsely frame the issue as if AC were kicking these poor persecuted atheists out of the class for the purpose of censoring them, and the media would never hint that it was the atheists / anti-ID activists who were in fact the instigators of all the disruption and problems in the class in the first place. AC feared Farren's group and their allies might do something like this. AC administrators felt they were in a no-win situation, so they cancelled the class.

Thus, in making its decision, Amarillo College had to weigh competing concerns:

  • (a) On the one hand there was the interest in protecting academic freedom and the rights of students to learn without facing the prospect of intimidation for doing so.
  • (b) On the other hand, there was apprehensiveness about bad PR that might come from a public dispute with Farren and the powerful, intolerant Darwin lobbyists who were backing him.
The atheists forced AC to balance defending academic freedom (a), against facing a bloodbath in the media (b), where (a) could only be pursued at the cost of (b). While I think academic freedom is very important, and worth defending even if you're unjustly ridiculed, apparently AC felt otherwise. Hence, they cancelled the class.

When someone intimidates you into backing down and shutting up, using threats of ridicule or mockery, we call this the heckler's veto. In the final analysis, Amarillo College cared more about bad media coverage than about academic freedom or free speech for intelligent design. More than anything, AC administrators just wanted the whole matter to go away, thus avoiding unfavorable publicity.

But AC isn't the root problem here. The root problem was the Darwin lobby works hard to make it extremely politically costly to stand up for academic freedom for intelligent design.

Remember the Hecklers

In choosing the easy way over the right way, AC is clearly a major part of the problem. But they're not the root problem. That distinction goes to Jamie Farren and his "Freethought Oasis" group. All told, in various e-mails Farren and his group were described as:

  • "VERY intense"
  • "obsessive"
  • "fanatical"
  • "aggressive," "verbally aggressive," and showing "aggressiveness"
  • "I don't know where the free thought comes in though, seems more like the lack of"
  • looking for a "fight"
  • showing a "desire to kill the class"
  • "representing a group of people, was disturbed by the class and indicated his intent to enroll students who might potentially create a disruptive environment in the classroom. -- a 'protest' if you will"
  • "disruptives"
That's a pretty telling list of words that came from multiple people in the AC administration. Don't forget that Farren and his Freethought Oasis are not just lone activists, adrift without friends in the Lone Star State, raising a ruckus at a college you never previously heard of. They are allies of much larger groups, the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education, organizations that are in the news all the time, with a major national impact on evolution education. When you have such powerful political allies and are threatening to raise a stink and cry a bunch of crocodile tears before the sympathetic national media, there's a good chance you'll get your way.

Image source: Wikipedia.