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Florida's "academic freedom" bills

Table of contents
Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5

Part 1: Two bills and a movie

Florida's new science standards were approved, but the evolution war was far from over.

Senate Bill 2692 was introduced in the Florida State Senate on Feb. 29, 2008, under the rubric of "The Academic Freedom Act," by Ronda Storms (R-District 10). The bill purports to protect the right of teachers to "objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution in connection with teaching any prescribed curriculum regarding chemical or biological origins" and the right of students not to be "penalized in any way because he or she subscribes to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution." Presumably attempting to avert the charge that it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the bill also specifies that its provisions "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion."

Although the bill explicitly states, "The provisions of this section do not require or encourage any change in the state curriculum standards for the K-12 public school system," SB 2692 was introduced to satisfy the demands of Florida creationists disappointed by the state board of education's Feb. 19, 2008, vote to adopt a new set of state science standards in which evolution is presented as a "fundamental concept underlying all of biology."

House Bill 1483 was introduced in the Florida House of Representatives on March 4, 2008, by D. Alan Hays (R-District 25). The bill was identical to Senate Bill 2692.

The Tampa Tribune (March 4, 2008) reported that although the chair of the Senate Committee on Education Pre-K-12 hopes to schedule a hearing on SB 2692, "the plan faces plenty of resistance from lawmakers in both parties, who say they are loath to rewrite the teaching standards that the state Board of Education passed last month." Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller (D-District 31) was quoted as saying, "I never thought I'd be in the Florida Senate in the 21st century, still having the same debate about evolution," adding, "I don't care if they say this is 'science,' ... You may find a few quack scientists who say it is, but it isn't." The Tribune (March 4, 2008) also editorially denounced the bill, writing, "If Florida lawmakers really want world-class curriculum, they'll let education experts -- not politicians -- build them."

Florida Citizens for Science discovered on March 7, 2008 that Rep. Hays had invited his fellow lawmakers to a screening of the movie Expelled, which the e-mail invite says is a movie that "follows Ben Stein on his journey around the globe where he discovers that scientists, educators and philosophers are being persecuted because they dare to go against the theory of evolution." The screening was scheduled for the evening of March 12, 2008 at the Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee.

The press and public were banned from the Wednesday event. The Miami Herald reported [March 10, 2008]: "It's kind of an irony: The public is expelled from a movie called Expelled," said House Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, who summed up the legislation as "problematic." There were some questions about the legality of showing the movie to the lawmakers in this fashion. The News-Press reported [March 11, 2008]: "House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, asked House general counsel Jeremiah Hawkes if that's legal -- since Florida law requires open meetings whenever two or more lawmakers meet to discuss pending business. Hawkes replied that, as long as they just watch the film and don't discuss the issue or arrange any future votes, it's technically legal."

However, the hoopla over the movie might have scared away the intended audience, according to the Tallahassee Democrat [March 14, 2008]: "But the evening at downtown's IMAX Theater, which was rented out to Mr. Stein's group for $940, was a bust, with only about 100 people attending the movie. And most of those weren't lawmakers who were (tiptoeing out on that limb now) apparently not really interested in wading into a dispute that exacerbates two controversies."

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