Lawsuit against science center over creationist film

A lawsuit charges that the California Science Center violated both the First Amendment and a contract to rent its Imax Theater when it canceled a screening of Darwin's Dilemma, the Los Angeles Times (December 29, 2009) reports. The lawsuit was filed by the American Freedom Alliance, a Los Angeles-based organization that describes itself as "a movement of concerned Americans advancing the values and ideals of Western civilization," in Los Angeles Superior Court on October 14, 2009. The Times added, "The AFA seeks punitive damages and compensation for financial losses, as well as a declaration from the court that the center violated the Constitution and cannot refuse the group the right to rent its facilities for future events."

The AFA had arranged to screen Darwin's Dilemma — "a feature-length documentary that criticizes Darwin and promotes intelligent design" according to the Times — along with the 11-minute film We Are Born of Stars at the CSC on October 25, 2009, as part of a series of events "offering compelling arguments and insights from both sides of the divide between evolutionary theory and intelligent design." The AFA's president Ari Davis told the Times that "his group has no position on Darwinism and intelligent design but is concerned that debate is being stifled by the scientific establishment," although on the AFA's website evolution is described as teeming with "gaps" and holes" and acceptance of evolution is accused of undermining civilization.

Helping to promote the event was the Discovery Institute, which issued a press release touting the premiere of Darwin's Dilemma at the CSC, which it described as "the Smithsonian Institution's west coast affiliate." (It is one of twenty.) The director of the Smithsonian Institution's affiliate program asked the CSC to correct the error, perhaps mindful of the 2005 incident in which the Discovery Institute arranged for a screening of The Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. After the screening was touted as evidence that the NMNH was "warming" to "intelligent design," the museum withdrew its nominal cosponsorship of the screening, and refunded the Discovery Institute's $16,000 fee, although the film was nonetheless screened there.

Shortly after the complaint from the Smithsonian Institution, the CSC canceled the AFA's screening on the grounds that the Discovery Institute's press release violated the terms of the rental contract, which provides that all promotional materials for events must be submitted to the CSC before they are disseminated. In its lawsuit, the AFA argues that it is unfair to hold it responsible for the actions of a third party, contends that the contract issue was a "false pretext" for cancellation of the screening of Darwin's Dilemma, and claims that "a broad network of Darwin advocates," including the Smithsonian Institution (which is not a defendant in the case and which declined to comment to the Times), "jointly conspired" with the CSC to cancel the screening.

"The first ruling in the case came Oct. 14, when Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant denied the AFA's initial request that he order the science center to permit the Oct. 25 screening," the Times reports. "But the suit for damages is moving forward, with a pretrial hearing scheduled Jan. 26." NCSE is providing important documents in the case, AFA v. CSC et al., on its website. In a separate lawsuit against the CSC, the Discovery Institute is complaining that the CSC failed to comply fully with its request under the California Public Records Act for documents and e-mails about the decision to cancel the screening. The complaint in the case, Discovery Institute v. CSC, is also available on the NCSE website.