October 26, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-5: Teaching of evolution as freedom of speech

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While William Jennings Bryan was warning of the consequences of teaching the 'doctrine' of evolution in public schools while excluding religious doctrine, the other chain of events that led to the collision in the Scopes trial was the publicly expressed concern by the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regarding what it felt were infringements on academic freedom, with teachers being fired for advocating unpopular views. Following the worldwide rise of Communist ideas that ultimately led to the Russian revolution in 1917, the 'Red Scare' came into force in the US and state legislatures were proposing laws that harassed and called for the dismissal and even arrest of anyone who spoke in favor of "socialism, communism, anarchism, bolshevism, pacifism, the international labor movement." (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 64).

In 1915, the also newly formed American Association of University Professors (AAUP) had presented its General Declaration of Principles that addressed the issue of academic freedom. It said that those colleges specifically created to promote certain doctrines (for example, private colleges established by religious denominations) need not adhere to academic freedom and were free to have on their faculty only those who subscribed to their doctrines, but those institutions that received public funds "have no moral right to bind the reason or conscience of any professor." (Larson, p. 77)

In 1924, the ACLU issued a statement offering to "defend the right of public school teachers to free speech both inside and outside the classroom, and explicitly adopted AAUP's conception of academic freedom" (Larson, p. 81). In its own descriptions of attempts at stifling free speech, the ACLU broadened the list of topics from those covered by the AAUP, including anti-evolution laws together with laws against other unpopular ideas, and also extending its scope to protect teachers in secondary education as well. It offered to assist in the defense of people in both schools and colleges who were accused in such cases.

The explosive combination of conflicting views was now firmly in place and the fuse was lit when on March 21, 1925 the governor of Tennessee signed into law the Butler Act, which stated that it was:

AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense. (italics in original)

The ACLU, which had been following the progress of such legislation across the nation, decided to see if the Butler Act could be a test case and published a statement in the Tennessee papers on May 4, 1925 offering to defend any teacher prosecuted under the Act. This set into motion the rapid sequence of events that led to the Scopes trial.

Some enterprising entrepreneurs in Dayton, Tennessee saw in the ACLU's challenge a golden opportunity to put their little town on the national map. By putting on a show trial centered around the highly controversial case of teaching evolution in the public schools, an issue that was being debated nationwide and generating immense passions, they knew they would draw national media attention and bring about economic benefits to their town.

So they quickly set about making sure that the trial took place in their town.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers quiz

The Chasers decide to ask Americans what should be done to Muslims.

Of course, this kind of 'person in the street' exercise is inherently unfair in that all the producers need to find are a very few people who give idiotic answers, edit out all the people who give reasonable responses, and thus make everyone look stupid. But for some questions, it is really quite shocking to think that even one person would answer the way they do.


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People on the street are terrifying. Haven't those people heard of the Holocaust? Shouldn't marking people out publicly because of their religion make little warning bells go off in their skulls?

Posted by Nicole Sharp on October 26, 2007 09:08 AM