How NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Punished David Coppedge for His Views on Intelligent Design

Discovery Staff
Discovery Institute
April 15, 2010

Supervisors at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory illegally harassed, demoted and humiliated a computer specialist and high-level system administrator for his beliefs about intelligent design, according to a lawsuit filed in California Superior Court.

BACKGROUND:
David Coppedge has worked on the Cassini mission since 1997. In 2000 he earned recognition for excellence, receiving the important role of “Team Lead SA” (system administrator), a role he held until his demotion in 2009. SAs oversee 200 Unix workstations, several high-capacity date storage units, networking equipment, and other specialized computing equipment across America and Europe. He has a wide breadth of knowledge about technical aspects of Cassini's computers and networks and was heavily involved in all the mission operations. Coppedge is suing JPL and Caltech for religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation; violation of his free speech rights; and wrongful demotion.

Intelligent design offers scientific evidence that life’s development is best explained as reflecting the design of an intelligent cause, citing mainstream research in biology, cosmology, and paleontology. The DVDs that Coppedge distributed, intended for viewing after work hours, contain no religious arguments or references. They are:

  • Unlocking the Mystery of Life, which presents the case for intelligent design based upon information coded in DNA, much as in computer software, while illustrating the nanotechnology in cells with vivid animation; and
  • The Privileged Planet, which presents the case from current cosmology that the universe was “fine-tuned” for life to emerge and to allow exploration of the cosmos. The film even features scientists associated with JPL.

Coppedge had every reason to think his raising scientific issues related to intelligent design and life’s origins fit well into his job responsibilities:

  • The Cassini mission is part of NASA and JPL’s overall program of exploring how galaxies, stars, planets begin, as well as how life began. NASA initiated a 1996 program on Origins to investigate the origins of life and other features of galaxies and the universe. 
  • Within the Origins program, what JPL calls its “premier mission,” the Terrestrial Planet Finder, seeks knowledge of how life might originate in the chemistry of another earth-like planet. The Cassini program frequently discusses the possibility of the life originating on Titan and Enceladus.
  • JPL regularly has scientists speaking on the origin of life, and the topic of origins is commonly discussed at JPL; it was a topic entirely appropriate for Coppedge to engage with his coworkers.

Coppedge’s case would correctly be described as ideologically based persecution:

  • In a blatant double-standard, JPL has restricted Coppedge from freely discussing his intelligent design views while at the same time allowing other employees to express themselves freely on a wide variety of topics in the workplace, including attacks on the intelligent design viewpoint.
  • Coppedge was punished for expressing support for intelligent design despite the fact that he never forced those views on anyone. When someone was not interested in watching one of his intelligent design videos, he dropped the matter.
  • Until Coppedge’s supervisor began harassing him, Coppedge never saw an indication that anyone resented his discussing intelligent design. In fact, Coppedge’s administrators eventually admitted that they had never received a single complaint about his sharing DVDs prior to targeting him for investigation.
  • In America’s legal and ethical culture, a person has a right to confront his accusers, a right enshrined in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. While Coppedge was not subject to any criminal investigation, it is noteworthy that JPL has refused to inform Coppedge who among his colleagues supposedly had concerns about being offered DVDs and has even failed to inform Coppedge of these unnamed co-workers’ alleged concerns with enough specificity that he could have the opportunity to rebut them. JPL’s refusal to disclose any specifics about those supposedly upset with Coppedge raises severe questions about the impartiality and credibility of JPL’s “investigation.” To be specific, JPL’s effort to cloak its investigation in secrecy raises the possibility that investigators may have twisted the comments of those they interviewed to justify the investigators’ predetermined conclusions.
  • Coppedge has been a faithful and highly regarded JPL employee for many years, has led tours of the lab and has served as an outreach speaker presenting the Cassini findings to civic and astronomy clubs and school groups.

Coppedge’s case is one of a series of similar free-speech controversies, including:

  • The California Science Center in Los Angeles, a state agency, is currently entangled in a pair of lawsuits following its discriminatory cancellation of a contract with a private non-profit group to screen a film for the public on intelligent design.
  • At Iowa State University in 2006, supervisors denied tenure to and forced out a distinguished astrophysicist for co-authoring a book on intelligent-design in cosmology.
  • At the Smithsonian Institution in 2005, supervisors investigated, harassed and demoted an evolutionary biologist for editing a pro-intelligent design article in a peer-reviewed technical journal.
  • At the University of Idaho in 2005, the university’s president banned faculty on campus from teaching against evolutionary orthodoxy.