Analysis of Lousiana "Academic Freedom" bill

This was just posted as a comment by “laminu” to the Help Louisiana post. I’m promoting it (with some minor editing for a few typos) to a full post because it deserves wider reading.

Notes from a lawyer and law teacher who’s been following this bill throughout the process:

1. About the discussion to this point:

a) Generalizations won’t do – you’ve got to read the bill, now Act 473, to see what the actual effect will be. (b) Louisiana NEVER adopted the Code Civil that is associated with Napoleon’s name: Louisiana’s original Civil Code was developed by three pretty darn good Louisiana lawyers from French (a projet of the Code Civil) and Spanish sources, to which they added provisions to cover the commercial laws dealt with elsewhere in French law. (Louisiana had been Spanish, not French, for decades when Jefferson sent Monroe to buy the Ile d’Orleans from Napoleon, such that it made sense to the redactors of the Louisiana code to follow Spanish legal traditions with respect to personal and family law issues.) Civil law reigns in most countries of the world outside the US and England, anyway, and to my way of thinking gives clearer guidance and quicker, more efficient justice in civil matters than the common law – much of which has already been replaced by clumsily written “codes” in the US. So, please, give the canard that “Louisiana is different in all legal respects because of the Napoleonic Code” a rest. The Civil Code has precisely NOTHING at all to do with the teaching of creationism in the public schools anyway.

Please try to control the ad hominem attacks. It’s no way to manage an issue. A insensitive ethnic remark on one visit to one part of one city is by no means grounds to condemn a whole state. Neither are the facts, inter alia, that (i) the plate on which the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico sits is being deflected down (from Houston to Pensacola) by the weight of the delta-making sediment deposited on it since the retreat of the last continental ice sheets, (ii) channelization and flood-control levees keep the silt carried by the Mississippi River from building the delta back up, and (iii) dams, locks, and modern soil-conservation practices upstream have reduced the silt volume in the river by over 75%, such that (iv) we’re sinking. Somebody has to work and live in the last habitable spot on the Mississippi if water-borne commerce is to happen, and we don’t apologize for being willing to do so. Unlike those who endure the certain annual agony of feet of frozen precipitation, who build towns in dry wildernesses for no sustainable economic reason, and who must learn to suppress the daily fear that the ground under their feet may open up with no warning, we have good years, we have a reason to be here, and we can count on enough advance notice of an impending calamity to get the hell out of Dodge. We aren’t all yahoos. Don’t alienate your allies or antagonize your adversaries by making them defend themselves and their personal choices with irrelevant and –dare I say it – insensitive remarks.

2. And finally, to the law:

This thing started out in the Senate as a bill to guarantee the academic freedom of K-12 teachers, and students, in the public schools. [“Academic freedom” in a kindergarten class??] The principal supporters in committee were creationists from the Louisiana Family Forum (Tony Perkins’ group, before he left La for DC and the Family Research Council); Senator Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, a physician with biochemistry and medical degrees from and a med-school faculty position at LSU and a Sunday school teacher; and the author, Senator Nevers, D-Bogalusa, an electrical contractor, a deacon in his church, and a former school board member who, according to the bio on the legislature’s web site, “keeps education issues at the forefront.” They urged passage because the textbook-approval cycle, seven years, puts outdated science in the schools. The selection of supplemental, corrective materials that the bill was to allow into the classroom was to be left to the discretion of teachers and – get this – students. [Consider that the First Amendment prohibits interference by the state with the free exercise of religion as well as the establishment of religion by the state, and that the free-exercise clause bars public school faculty and staff from interfering with student-initiated and -led prayer at certain school functions. The notion behind the original bill was to stretch the free-exercise clause precedents to permit the kids to introduce into the science classroom the YEC or ID notions that the establishment clause keeps their teachers from spouting. Okay, so that makes you hate lawyers. I’m just happy as a lawyer that the proponents went in a different direction, as I will explain directly.]

The original bill was replaced by a substitute, SB 733, which dropped the “academic freedom” facade and proposed to name the intended law the “Louisiana Science Education Act.” The new structure is – oddly enough – to require teachers to exhaust the old, outdated, error-filled content of the approved science textbooks and to permit them to use supplementary materials to “help students” understand and “critique” the theories being studied, but only such materials as the local school board has approved. Even then, the state board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, may rule certain supplementary materials out. The support group, apparently having not read the new bill, keeps insisting that the new law will help science teachers give their students the best of current science – whereas it hinders them in fact, by adding delay and bureaucracy to the job of staying up with their fields and updating their lesson plans accordingly.

Whoever called this law a “Dover trap” [that was me: RBH] was, therefore, on point. It’s main effect will be to encourage local boards to approve wingnut “science” for use in the classroom and so invite Kitzmiller II. The local boards that do so – in open meetings, on the public record, as Louisiana law requires – will have their decisions invalidated in federal court, where they will be hit for large fees and costs. Legislators who think the prospect is one of local interest only forget that Louisiana pays up to half of every local board’s costs by way of our Minimum Foundation grant system.

The legislators voted for SB 733, with no real debate on the floor of either house, because the wording is superficially innocuous, because the bill and its supporters explicitly renounce any intent to introduce religion into the classroom, and because nobody needed trouble from the LFF on an issue that the federal courts will be happy to handle anyway. Perhaps less than statesmanlike, but it’s near-term pragmatism that holds sway with legislators generally, in the Congress as well as in the states. Remember that Governor Jindal, who earned biology and public policy degrees from Brown in 1992 and was a Rhodes Scholar, had indicated during his campaign that he was in favor of exposing public school kids to ID. I don’t know if or to what extent he played an active role in the passage of the bill, but his public sympathy for the cause didn’t hurt.

If you’ve read this far, you have lots of patience. Thanks.

And thank you. RBH