Academic Freedom and Democracy - ALEC Style

Academic freedom is one of the cornerstones of our educational system, so who could be against it? Representive Gus Blackwell introduced into the 2013 Oklahoma legislature HB 1674, called the "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act". But there was something strange about the bill, as science teachers in Oklahoma already have a system ensuring academic freedom. And, the bill only insured Academic freedom in four areas which Representative Blackwell deemed controversial, specifically "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning". Mr. Blackwell's education and expertise is in religion and business administration, so it's unusual that he knows what is controversial in science. Oklahoma scientists and science educators were almost unanimously opposed to the bill as it is their opinion that there is virtually no scientific controversy on the core facts of global warming and evolution.

The bill allowed "teachers to help students understand certain information about scientific theories; disallowing State Board of Education, district boards of education, and certain administrators from prohibiting teachers from helping students understand certain information about scientific theories." Perhaps the bill would have been more aptly named the "Freedom from Accountability Act". Apparently Mister Blackwell had not thought this through. It would also shield any science teacher, no matter of what religion, who wished to introduce their beliefs into their science classes. The bill even had an emergency clause providing that it be enacted immediately with a letter sent to school officials informing them of the decision. And, why is this now an emergency? The bill passed Oklahoma's education committee by one vote, but fortunately for the quality of science education in Oklahoma, the 2013 session ended without it coming up for a vote. But, you can be sure it will be back.

The unusual nature of this bill can be understood as similar bills, with almost exactly the same wording, have been introduced in about 20 states. It is one of the "model bills" being promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is composed of over 300 special interest groups and corporations such as Exxon Mobile, AT&T, pharmaceutical companies, and Koch Industries. They sponsor conferences where their representatives meet with state legislative members to collaborate on "model bills" and to draft legislation favoring their special interests. ALEC now has over 1000 "model bills", many of which seek to limit workers rights, limit corporate liabilities, oppose environmental regulations, cut taxes, oppose universal health care, and to privatize such things as education, workmen's compensation, and the prison systems.

Though mainly supporting corporate interests, the legislation often gives a nod to religious groups and to conservatives to win their support. The state legislators take the "model bills" back to their respective states, often as their own work. It also carries an understanding that by sponsoring the bill, they will receive support for their reelection campaigns. ALEC has 501(C)(4)status as a charity, which makes it tax exempt and hides its motives and the identity of its donors. Although ALEC claims it is not a lobbying group, it is directly lobbying our state Congressmen while getting around laws that limit lobbying and require disclosures of lobbying activities.

Representative Blackwell is a member of ALEC and, according to Source Watch, used state funds to attend their meetings. His interest in the bill was probably to introduce creationism into science classes, but adding climate change to the "controversy" list aligns with the interests of the fossil fuel companies. A leaked document from the Heartland Institute, a Libertarian think tank funded by fossil fuel interests, showed that introducing doubt about climate change into science classes was one of their goals.

Bill Moyer recently had a program on how ALEC is undermining American democracy. Although ALEC claims to promote capitalism, it is actually the citizens who pay. Not only do many politicians attend their meetings at state expense, members of ALEC get a big tax break for their lobbying activities and our taxes still pay for privatized state functions. Sourcewatch lists 25 Oklahoma legislators as members of ALEC and Governor Fallin was once ALEC's woman of the year, which means she favored the needs of large corporations and of the wealthy long before she became governor. We just saw a number of ALEC sponsored laws make their way through the Oklahoma Legislature, much to the detriment of ordinary citizens.

(c) 2013 J.C. Moore

Dr. J.C. Moore is a physical chemist whose interests are spectroscopy,computational chemistry, professional ethics, and science education. He taught chemistry, physics, and general science at the college level for 38 years. Since retirement, he has established, a website that examines current events from a science and research perspective.