Issue 99, Winter 2005/2006

School board members and some parents from Dover, PA have been quoted in The New York Times as saying that "teaching intelligent design is a free speech issue." They’re only right if they’re talking about First Amendment protection against compelled speech.

Adherents of intelligent design are entitled to voice their views without government interference. However, that doesn’t give them the right to have their views taught in the schools.

Curricular decisions are, and should be, decided by educators and specialists in relevant disciplines. These professionals identify what students need to learn in order to function as responsible adults and devise curricula to address these needs. They don’t, and shouldn’t, try to teach all views about everything, simply because not all ideas are equally valid.

For example, Holocaust revisionist claims are not taught alongside evidence that certain populations were targeted for extermination in WW II, although individuals are entitled to their belief that the Holocaust did not occur. Reputable historians and educators have made the judgment that this viewpoint, though protected, lacks credible evidence, and therefore should not be included in the curriculum. In most schools, a history teacher would be fired for teaching that the Holocaust never happened.

Similarly, mathematicians and educators decide whether algebra should be taught at all, and if so whether it should precede or follow calculus or trigonometry. Other professionals determine whether students should be required to take physics or auto mechanics.

Elected school officials rightly accept the judgments of trained professionals in most cases. Evolution and sex education are two notable exceptions. In these cases, some schools sacrifice educational legitimacy to avoid controversy, but in doing so violate the cardinal rule that government may not discriminate against controversial or politically unpopular ideas.

If schools banned the word "creationism" in class (as some have done with words like "masturbation" and "abortion"), that would pose a First Amendment problem. In Dover, however, the problem is not so much censorship as compelled speech: teachers must present intelligent design along with evolution, even if it’s not scientifically or pedagogically justifiable.

Let the scientists battle out the question of whether there is a "controversy" to teach. They can manage just fine without meddling by government officials who are more adept at avoiding controversy than explaining the scientific method.