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South Dakota Academic Freedom Bill Dies in Senate Education Committee

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I am in Pierre, SD, today where the South Dakota Academic Freedom Bill, SB114, died in the Senate Education Committee by a vote of 4-2. Proponents of the bill who testified included Senator Jeff Monroe (the lead sponsor of the bill), Dr. William Harris (a PhD biochemist who holds a faculty position at the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota), Terri Jorgenson (Education Coordinator for Concerned Women for America of South Dakota), and myself (as Research Coordinator at Discovery Institute).

Harris, who has published over 270 peer-reviewed scientific papers in the technical literature, testified:

There is no question in my mind that there are serious scientific challenges to both the theory of the spontaneous appearance of life from a chemical soup and the theory that all of the diversity of life forms is the result of natural selection acting on random mutations (the modern version of Darwin's theory of evolution).
He further explained:
Unfortunately, when it comes to important subjects like unguided evolution and the spontaneous origin of life, most students today are not hearing all of the facts. They are only hearing one side of the story -- the side that supports materialistic theories, not the evidence that challenge it. Facts that contradict the standard model are common knowledge in the scientific community, but they are rarely mentioned to students. This is not education. It is indoctrination.
Harris noted that over 900 PhD scientists have signed a statement dissenting from the modern neo-Darwinian theory.

In my testimony, I explained:

In communities across America, teachers face discrimination and censorship for trying to teach the scientific evidence for and against Darwin's theory. The old Scopes-trial stereotype of teachers fearing persecution for teaching the evidence for evolution has been turned on its head.
I further testified about the limited scope of the bill. I made clear that it does not protect the teaching of religious viewpoints like creationism, but only protects teaching the strengths and weaknesses of scientific ideas that are already in the curriculum:
Predictably, opponents of academic freedom are attacking this bill by promoting a lot of misinformation.

First, they are claiming that the bill would sneak religious beliefs like creationism into the classroom. That's WRONG.

This bill states, "The provisions of this Act only protect the teaching of scientific information and may not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine."

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has held creationism to be a religious viewpoint, its teaching would never be protected under this bill. Critics of this bill need to read its text, because it invalidates their fears.

Second, some critics have also claimed that the bill would sanction the teaching of intelligent design. Again, that is WRONG.

This bill only protects the rights of teachers to help "students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the courses being taught that are aligned with the content standards."

This language means that the bill only protects discussions of the scientific strengths and weaknesses of topics that are already in the science curriculum. Since intelligent design is not in the K-12 public school curriculum anywhere in South Dakota, its teaching would not be protected by this bill.

What this bill DOES say is that teachers and students can discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of topics that ARE in the science curriculum. Since Darwinian evolution is part of the curriculum in South Dakota, teachers may discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of that topic.

Third, critics claim that these bills, if passed into law, will result in lawsuits. History shows otherwise. Academic freedom bills have passed into law in two states -- Louisiana in 2008, and Tennessee in 2012, and there have been no lawsuits over those laws.

Opponents of the bill also testified, representing primarily South Dakota teachers' organizations, the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, and the Department of Education. However, none of the bill's opponents raised the objections that had been advanced in the local media, and that I have responded to here and here, notably the false claims that the bill includes creationism or would somehow authorize the teaching of intelligent design. So the results of the vote likely cannot be attributed to inaccurate reporting.

Importantly, none of the critics of the bill denied that there are legitimate scientific controversies around biological and chemical evolution. In that regard, it was encouraging to see a real, serious dialogue over the bill, focusing on reasonable substantive questions rather demonstrably false talking points.

Instead, opponents raised the issue of local versus state control. They claimed that the bill involves the legislature trying to dictate curriculum, which should be set by the state board or local school boards. This sounds like a reasonable concern, but it is based on a misunderstanding.

Academic freedom legislation in no way negates the required curriculum, and the standard curriculum must still be taught. These laws are permissive, not compulsory: under these laws, teachers may choose to teach the strengths and weaknesses of controversial scientific topics in the curriculum, but are not required to do so.

Critics also complained that the bill diminishes the ability of school boards and administrators to tightly control what teachers say. Here, they are right -- but in our view that is an argument in favor of the bill, not against. While teachers must still teach the required curriculum under an academic freedom bill, the legislation also gives teachers the freedom to discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of scientific ideas in the curriculum.

Critics apparently think it's undesirable that administrators could no longer step in to stop teachers from supplementing instruction with appropriate material to sharpen critical thinking skills. Supporters of the bill, of course, believe that giving teachers that freedom would be to the benefit of students.

A final objection was that there is no specific examples of teachers in South Dakota being fired or threatened with retaliation for teaching about scientific controversies. I explained in my testimony, however, that this is not always a problem that manifests as full-blown discipline. Teachers may not be getting into trouble, but that's because they never teach about scientific controversies to begin with. Why don't they? Because they are afraid to objectively cover scientifically controversial topics. That's the root problem.

Moreover, Senator Monroe quoted two anonymous teachers who said that they supported the bill. The fact that these teachers supported the bill but didn't feel at liberty to come and testify in-person speaks for itself.

Here's what I said on this point:

As an attorney with Discovery Institute, I work with teachers nationwide who are afraid to teach students about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of theories of biological or chemical evolution because they are afraid they might lose their jobs. Most cases never become public because of teachers' fears of further retaliation.

[E]ven in those school districts where there may not be outright persecution, there is widespread confusion on the part of school administrators and teachers about what can legally be taught. In a statewide survey of teachers in Louisiana, for example, 50 percent of respondents indicated that they did NOT "feel legally confident and free... to critically examine every side" of the evolution issue, and 35 percent of teachers reported feeling "intimidated regarding the teaching of the controversy surrounding origins."

Academic freedom bills help to remedy such fears by restoring a climate of intellectual openness to the classroom. Unfortunately the committee didn't feel it was the right time to move the bill forward in the legislative process, but proponents made a strong case for academic freedom in the context of a reasonable, civil dialogue over points for and against the legislation. That, at least, is good to report.

Image: South Dakota Capitol Building, by Samir Luther [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.