Saturday, May 12, 2007


Lee at Yorktown

This time it was William Lee, a Spanish teacher at Tabb High School in Yorktown, but the results were no better than they were for the Lee at Appomattox. This Lee surrendered one of the Discovery Institute's last hopes of getting Intelligent Design Creationism into public schools.

As discussed at Wall of Separation, the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Mr. Lee was not intending to promote ID, only fairly commonplace religious proselytizing. But his actions, nonetheless, wound up hurting the last fall-back tactic for actually teaching ID: namely, having local boards give a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to teachers who are willing (or not so willing) to go ahead and teach ID as an alternative to evolution. First, here is a brief summary of the decision in the case:

Lee posted various items on a bulletin board within his classroom, including a National Day of Prayer poster, featuring George Washington kneeling in prayer; a newspaper article about the supposed religious and philosophical differences between President Bush and his challenger John Kerry; an article about how then Attorney General John Ashcroft was leading staffers in "voluntary" Bible study sessions; and a couple of stories about a young Virginia woman who had been killed while in the course of missionary activities in South America. He claimed he posted them because he thought they were "uplifting" to the students and that imparting the knowledge of these people and their values to his students would expose them to social and moral values he deemed beneficial to their emotional growth. Lee claimed this was appropriate because he is responsible for more than just the academic well-being of his students.

After a complaint by an unnamed citizen about the religious nature of the material, the principal of the school, at the instructions of the school board, investigated and removed the above items. Lee, represented by the Rutherford Institute, sued the school board, claiming it had violated his rights under the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause.

Without going into too much detail, a three judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, generally considered one of the most conservative in the nation, upheld a lower court decision that found the items were not protected speech because, under the whole of the circumstances, they would be reasonably be taken to constitute part of the curriculum endorsed by the board, rather than Lee's "private" speech. Much of the decision is taken up with showing that the posting of the items on a bulletin board constituted "curricular speech," an issue that would not really be in doubt where ID was being taught as an alternative to evolution in a science course. What is interesting here is that the Court makes clear that it is the board that is responsible for how the teachers execute the curriculum and that it cannot hide behind any alleged right of the teachers to teach as they like:

[W]here the in-class speech of a teacher is concerned, the school has an interest not only in preventing interference with the day-to-day operation of its classrooms . . . , but also in scrutinizing expressions that the public might reasonably perceive to bear its imprimatur.

Put simply, our school systems are responsible for adequately and properly educating our youth. A school board carrying out this vital responsibility is entitled to some enhanced control over expressions within its classrooms, so that it can "assure . . . that readers or listeners are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity, and that the views of the individual speaker are not erroneously attributed to the school. (Internal quotation marks omitted)
According to the Court, "disputes over curriculum constitute ordinary employment disputes and do not implicate speech on matters of public concern." In other words, the board has the responsibility to the public to decide the curriculum and, by implication, it cannot delegate that responsibility to individual teachers.

There could be implications for "academic freedom" of professors in state-run universities in this sort of analysis but there are sufficient differences in the two systems, particularly in the fact that higher education is not mandated by the state and the greater presumed maturity of the students, that distinctions supporting academic freedom can be made. But the wiggle room for ID is rapidly running out.
Via Red State Rabble.
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