Thomas Murphy, Superintendent
Federal Way No. 210
31405 – 18th Ave. S.
Federal Way WA 98003
Dear Superintendent Murphy:
We have been following with interest the controversy over the Federal Way School Board’s recent decision to declare a “moratorium” on showing the film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” to students in your school district. We believe such a decision not only implicates serious First Amendment concerns but also advances an ill-conceived policy that confuses objectivity and accuracy with “balance” in determining what materials are allowed to be taught in the science classroom.
As has been reported in the media, the school board has cited a pre-existing policy requiring “balance” of viewpoints in the classroom when a supposedly controversial issue is being taught. Global warming, however, is hardly such a topic, no matter what some parents may claim. Every national and international committee designated to address the issue has concluded that climate change is occurring as a result of human activities. Just last week, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that a buildup of greenhouse gases is helping to warm the planet. President Bush has also acknowledged that global warming is a problem that needs to be addressed. In short, there is no controversy as to whether or not climate change is happening; it is.
Beyond the designation of this issue as “controversial,” however, the “balanced viewpoints” standard asserted by the school board not only raises serious constitutional concerns but also fails to ensure that only the most objective and accurate information is presented in a science classroom. To be sure, the presentation of the best scientific knowledge available is and should be the primary concern of educators. Censoring scientific documentaries and other educational material because they do not portray “balanced” viewpoints is anathema to the scientific method and an inappropriate standard to apply to classroom materials. If there are gaps or questions left unanswered by a scientific theory, they can and should be addressed. But it is entirely inappropriate and irresponsible to elevate a fringe perspective that has been wholly rejected by the leading scientists and present it as a “competing” theory or a “balanced” view.
In a recent Op-ed in the Seattle Times, the vice president of the Federal Way School Board, David Larson, asked “Imagine if an established Republican narrated a movie about global warming. Do you understand the need for following our policy now?” The answer, obviously, depends on the content of the material. A movie that elevated marginal viewpoints and presented them as a legitimate or “balanced” point of view would of course be problematic. That is clearly not the case here.
Furthermore, the introduction of “alternative” viewpoints in a science classroom when they are premised on particular religious beliefs raises serious First Amendment concerns. The parental complaints over the screening of “An Inconvenient Truth” echo the arguments that have been made to justify teaching intelligent design, as an alternative to evolution. That dispute, however, was definitively resolved last year:
…the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Dist. , 400 F.Supp.2d 707, 765 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
Barring “An Inconvenient Truth” based on arguments that climate change conflicts with a biblical view raises the same Constitutional questions that were addressed and answered in Kitzmiller .
We ask that you reconsider the decision to bar “An Inconvenient Truth” from Federal Way classrooms. The “marketplace of ideas” that you are quoted referring to does not justify presenting religiously-based views as science, or expecting students to be able to discern the difference. That’s what school is supposed to teach them.
National Coalition Against Censorship
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation
Richard Doherty, M.D.
Robert K. Musil, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Chair, the Environmental Alliance