California Science Center is sued for canceling a film promoting intelligent design

Mike Boehm
Los Angeles Times
December 29, 2009
Link to Original Article

L.A.'s California Science Center will start the new year defending itself in court for canceling a documentary film attacking Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

A lawsuit alleges that the state-owned center improperly bowed to pressure from the Smithsonian Institution, as well as e-mailed complaints from USC professors and others. It contends that the center violated both the 1st Amendment and a contract to rent the museum's Imax Theater when it canceled the screening of "Darwin's Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record."

The suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by the American Freedom Alliance, an L.A.-based group described by senior fellow Avi Davis as a nonprofit, nonpartisan "think tank and activist network promoting Western values and ideals."

The AFA seeks punitive damages and compensation for financial losses, as well as a declaration from the court that the center violated the Constitution and cannot refuse the group the right to rent its facilities for future events.

The AFA had planned an Oct. 25 screening of two films at the Exposition Park museum -- one a short Imax movie called "We are Born of Stars," which favors Darwin's theory; the other, "Darwin's Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record," a feature-length documentary that criticizes Darwin and promotes intelligent design.

Intelligent design is the theory that an intelligent being, rather than impersonal forces such as Darwinian natural selection, is responsible for shaping life on Earth. An overwhelming majority of scientists and science and natural history museums consider the theory of evolution to have been proved beyond a doubt by genetic and fossil evidence. Critics of intelligent design have dismissed it as a superficially scientific cloak for the straightforwardly religious belief known as Creationism that's anchored in a literal reading of the biblical Book of Genesis.

The AFA's Davis said his group has no position on Darwinism and intelligent design but is concerned that debate is being stifled by the scientific establishment.

During the fall, the AFA organized a series of public events, including the film screening, geared to the 2009 bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of his landmark work, "On the Origin of Species."

On Oct. 5, the science center, one of 165 national affiliates of the Smithsonian that enjoy special access to loans from its massive collection, received an alert -- and a complaint -- from Harold Closter, director of the Smithsonian's affiliates program. Closter gave the science center the head's-up about a news release that had been issued not by the AFA but by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design and whose researchers are featured in "Darwin's Dilemma." In an e-mail that's an exhibit in the lawsuit, he wrote that the news release wrongly implied that the California Science Center is "a West Coast branch of the Smithsonian, and that the film showing is a Smithsonian event." Closter asked science center officials to correct the error but did not mention canceling the screening.

The Smithsonian has a history with the Discovery Institute: In an embarrassing episode in 2005, it approved Discovery's rental of an auditorium at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History for a screening of a different film promoting intelligent design. That led to an outcry from the scientific community. But, having signed a contract, the Smithsonian allowed the screening to go forward, trying to distance itself from the event by returning the $16,000 rental fee and emphasizing that the Smithsonian did not endorse the screening.

The California Science Center, in contrast, canceled the AFA's screening on Oct. 6, saying that the AFA had violated its rental agreement.

Science center President Jeffrey Rudolph said in a statement entered in the case file that the news release violated a standard contractual requirement: All promotional materials for outside users' events must be submitted to the museum before they can be made public.

The AFA's suit, filed Oct. 14, contends that the contract issue was a "false pretext" and that pressure from the Smithsonian and the academic community was the real reason for canceling the film. It alleges that Rudolph first met with museum board members, then "contrived a justification" -- the unauthorized news release -- for preventing the screening. The AFA says that it should not have been held responsible for a release that it didn't issue itself.

The AFA alleges that in failing to be honest and open about its reasons for negating the contract, the science center committed a contract fraud that should now expose it to punitive damages on top of the $75,000 or more that Davis says the AFA lost by hastily having to transfer the $20 per ticket screening to a smaller space at USC's Davidson Conference Center, where the pro-Darwin Imax film could not be shown properly.

Rudolph declined to comment last week, saying in a prepared statement that the screening "was canceled because of issues related to the contract."

The Smithsonian is not a defendant in the suit. The huge, Washington, D.C. research and museum institution is federally chartered and receives part of its funding from the federal government.

The suit contends, however, that the Smithsonian was part of "a broad network of Darwin advocates [that] . . . jointly conspired" with the California Science Center to stop its film screening. A spokeswoman said the Smithsonian had no comment.

The first ruling in the case came Oct. 14, when Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant denied the AFA's initial request that he order the science center to permit the Oct. 25 screening. But the suit for damages is moving forward, with a pretrial hearing scheduled Jan. 26.

In a separate suit filed Dec. 1, the Discovery Institute alleges that the California Science Center improperly has held back documents and e-mails pertaining to the film's cancellation, which it had sought under the California Public Records Act.

"We want to find out what really happened," said John West, the senior fellow in charge of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Government agencies that allow the public to rent their facilities can't "pick and choose only the viewpoints they like," he added.

Among the 44 pages that the Discovery Institute did get from the science center are e-mails filed as exhibits with its suit: "I'm less troubled by the freedom of speech issues than why my tax dollars which support the California 'Science' Center are being spent on hosting religious propaganda," wrote Hilary Schor, a USC professor of English, comparative literature and gender studies.

But another correspondent, Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which champions evolution in clashes over which theory should be taught in public schools, urged "NOT asking the museum to cancel the showing of the movie. Really -- the story that 'big science is trying to squelch controversy . . . ' is going to be a bigger story and draw more attention to the movie's showing than the showing itself."

"Darwin's Dilemma" was screened in September at the University of Oklahoma's Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History -- sponsored not by the museum but by a student organization that rented its auditorium. West, the Discovery Institute official, noted approvingly that officials of the Oklahoma museum "came under a lot of pressure" from Darwinists opposed to the screening, "but their response was to do more free speech, and open the museum for a counter-lecture" opposing intelligent design.