California Science Center to Pay $110,000 Settlement Over Intelligent Design Film

In what antievolution proponents praise as a great victory and scientists and science educators rue as a case of poor judgment, the California Science Center (CSC) has agreed to pay $110,000 to a group that went to court after the center cancelled an agreement to show an antievolution film.

CSC had been sued by the California-based think tank American Freedom Alliance, which alleged that the science center was illegally censoring intelligent design (ID) by cancelling its booking. The settlement, which was announced on Monday, contains no admission of fault on either side. But CSC does agree to pay damages to AFA and invite it to reschedule the event, originally planned for 25 October 2009. AFA has refused the offer.

The dispute began after AFA signed a contract with the state-run CSC to rent CSC's IMAX theatre for the premier of a prointelligent design documentary, Darwin's Dilemma. The group planned to hold a debate afterward between creationists and evolutionary scientists. But CSC cancelled the screening after the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that advocates intelligent design, sent out press releases promoting the event. Casey Luskin, policy analyst at the Discovery Institute, says that is standard practice with events and films that feature the organization's members. The center claimed that AFA was in breach of the terms of a contract that required it to seek CSC's "approval prior to issuing any press releases" and that the two groups were colluding to drum up a controversy.

AFA responded on 14 October by suing CSC in Los Angeles Superior Court. The science center, it claimed, had come under pressure from scientists and advocacy groups to not show the film, and had found a convenient, "false pretext" to get out of the contract and cancel the film. An e-mail from 5 October that was entered into evidence described how the Smithsonian Institution, of which CSC is a national affiliate, expressed its concern about the planned screening. Numerous scientific organizations and individuals also contacted CSC to express their concerns about the film being shown at a publicly funded institution and urged the center to cancel the event.

The science center denies that the cancellation came under pressure. "The cancellation was never about the content of the program, as indicated by the fact that the foundation was willing to have the event in the first place. It was about the false and misleading press releases that the Discovery Institute and AFA issued," the science center said in a statement Monday. It added that it only settled to "avoid further proceedings and return the [California Science Center] Foundation's focus to the important work that it has at hand—rather than be distracted by AFA's meritless litigation." According to CSC's press release, the $110,000 settlement is covered by an insurer.

Luskin views the settlement as a victory for "free speech rights. … Our problem was not that the California Science Center disagrees, they were trying to prevent [ID's] right to be heard." The lesson, he adds, is that "if you are so intolerant of ID that you're going to illegally suppress it, you might have to pay six figures."

Steven Newton, a geologist at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an Oakland, California-based nonprofit organization that monitors creationism activities, disputes Luskin's characterization of the settlement, saying it was a case "without clear victors." But NCSE and others in the science crowd believe that the science museum ended up with egg on its face.

"It cost CSC a fair bit of money, and was time away from the core mission," Newton says. NCSE had urged CSC not to cancel the screening, says Newton, to avoid creating any martyrs for the ID movement. Instead, NCSE had sent e-mails to California area science professionals, encouraging them to "show up and ask difficult questions."