Posted by Timothy Sandefur on April 26, 2005 06:26 PM

A parent and ID creationist in Roseville, California, has filed a libel lawsuit against National Center for Science Education Director Dr. Eugenie Scott on the basis of statements made in her recent article in California Wild magazine. The parent, Larry Caldwell, claims that Dr. Scott has impugned his character and should pay for it. But in fact, the lawsuit is a frivolous waste of the court's time and a character study in the mind of the modern ID creationist activist.

Caldwell, you may recall, filed a lawsuit against the Roseville School Board in January, 2005, complaining that the board's Textbook Screening Committee had adopted a biology textbook incorporating evolutionary science without 'mak[ing] a resonably satsifactory analysis that the Holt Biology Textbook's presentation of evolutionary [sic] was ‘accurate.'' What he meant, in fact, was that the Committee rejected his proposal to include various pieces of creationist detritus in the curriculum.

Dr. Scott's article discusses this case, and includes the following allegedly defamatory statements:

In June 2003, the Roseville district was choosing a textbook for high school biology courses. One local citizen, Larry Caldwell, protested that the book favored by teachers took a 'one-sided' approach to teaching evolution. Like all commercial textbooks, the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston textbook includes evolution but no creationist or antievolution content. Caldwell said that the textbook did not invite students to 'think critically' about the subject of evolution and offered a stack of supplemental books and videotapes that would redress the book's deficiencies. These were an odd mixture of ID and creation science: DVDs promoted by the Discovery Institute; a young-earth creationist book, Refuting Evolution by Jonathan Safarti; and the Jehovah's Witness book Life: How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or Creation? Thanks to its free distribution, this book is probably the most widely-circulated creation science book in the country. District teachers strongly opposed all these materials.

Mr. Caldwell, in announcing his libel suit, says 'I never submitted such books to the school district.... In fact I had never even heard of either of these books until I read Scott's article.' (Come to think of it, that is a pretty remarkable claim. He's never seen Life: How Did It Get Here?) Also, Dr. Scott wrote,

At the next meeting, [the creationists on the school board] declared that the creationist materials would be ‘recommended' but not required, and that each school could decide whether or not to use them. This was to provide an opportunity for creationist parents to lobby teachers and administrators. The board also organized an ‘information session' for teachers on the supplementary materials led by Caldwell and ID supporter Cornelius Hunter, a local engineer and author of several religiously-oriented antievolution books.

To all of these shocking charges, Mr. Caldwell replies

[Scott claimed] that I purportedly subscribe to a number of creation science beliefs discussed in the article—none of which I in fact agree with; and that I purportedly advocate a number of creationist activities in public schools that are enumerated in the article—including the banning of evolution from science classes, and the use of the Bible in science classes.

Now, for a little libel law.

Libel in California is a 'false and unprivileged publication by writing...or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.' (Cal. Civ. Code § 45). Not every bad statement about a person—and not even every untrue statement about a person—is libel. Except in cases of statements that are so bad that they can be presumed to always cause a person's reputation to suffer—which wouldn't seem to be the case here—a plaintiff is required to show some sort of special damage to him caused by the publication: Caldwell needs to prove that Dr. Scott's haunting suggestion that he 'offered a stack of supplemental books and videotapes' including 'a young-earth creationist book,' somehow caused him harm that is 'more or less peculiar to the particular plaintiff in that the plaintiff actually suffered the loss in the specific amount.' O'Hara v. Storer Communications, Inc., 231 Cal.App.3d 1101, 1113 (1991). Hard to see how a man who has become a notorious community activist for ID creationism can have been harmed by Scott's statements even if they are untrue. (I don't know if they're true or not.)

But more importantly, Caldwell's protection by the libel laws is significantly lessened by the fact that he has 'voluntarily inject[ed] himself...into a particular public controversy and thereby [has] become[ ] a public figure for a limited range of issues.' Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974). When a person does this, the First Amendment restricts his ability to bring libel suits against people who criticize him. As one court recently put it, under California law

[l]imited purpose public figures lose some protection regarding their reputation to the extent that the allegedly defamatory communication relates to [their] role in a public controversy. To qualify as a limited purpose public figure, a plaintiff must have undertaken some voluntary [affirmative] act[ion] through which he seeks to influence the resolution of the public issues involved.

Thomas v. Los Angeles Times Communications, LLC, 189 F.Supp.2d 1005, 1011 (C.D. Cal. 2002) aff'd 45 Fed.Appx. 801, cert. denied 537 U.S. 1172 (2003) (citations and quotation marks omitted). People like this, the courts have said, 'are less deserving of protection than private persons because public figures...have voluntarily exposed themselves to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood concerning them.' Id. at 1011 (citations and quotation marks omitted)

Caldwell has certainly undertaken voluntary action to influence the resolution of a public issue. And under First Amendment precedents, once you're a public figure, you can sue for libel only when you can show 'actual malice,' meaning that 'an allegedly defamatory statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.' Id. (citing Gertz, supra; New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 296 (1964)).

That seems very unlikely in this case. Indeed, if Scott's statements are inaccurate, they are probably simple mistakes.

The same, however, cannot be said of Caldwell's own misrepresentations. For example, Caldwell states that Scott's article accuses him of 'advocat[ing] a number of creationist activities in public schools that are enumerated in the article—including the banning of evolution from science classes, and the use of the Bible in science classes.' But examine Dr. Scott's article: nowhere does she 'enumerate' any such thing. She refers to the Bible once or twice, never accusing anyone of wanting to teach it in science class, and she never comes close to saying that Caldwell seeks to ban the teaching of evolution. On the contrary, she says '[t]he history of creationism has followed a pattern. First, creationists attempted to ban evolution, then to teach creation science, next to teach ID, and now, most commonly, they lobby to teach EAE. The creationism/evolution controversy that occurred in the northern California community of Roseville during 2004 is a microcosm of this history.' In other words, she (accurately) accuses Caldwell of seeking to teach the blatantly false doctrines of ID, not to ban science teaching in the classroom. Now, when you're accusing someone of misrepresenting you, it rather takes the wind out of your sails to misrepresent that person in your own complaint! Caldwell calls Scott a 'liar' in this article; but it's Caldwell who is either sloppy, a liar, or both. (Yes, I am allowed to say that.)

There's an amusing endnote to all of this. The self-righteous conclusion of the press release says

'I wonder if Ms. Scott has found it so difficult to locate someone who actually fits her preconceived stereotype of a Bible-thumper trying to ban evolution that she must now resort to reinventing someone to fit her stereotype,' said Caldwell.

According to Caldwell, Scott's article is typical of how the Darwinists ‘debate' this issue: 'They tell lies about our side and try to discredit and marginalize everyone on our side by stereotyping people as ‘religious nut cases' who are trying to inject Genesis into science classes, or trying to ban evolution from science classes. Neither of which is true.'

As co-blogger Steve Reuland pointed out, though, the first quote, attributed to Caldwell, appears almost word for word in a blog post written a few days ago by John West, in which the words are attributed to West: 'Has Scott found it so difficult to locate someone who actually fits her preconceived stereotype of a Bible-thumper trying to ban evolution that she must now resort to reinventing someone to fit her stereotype? It will be interesting to see whether Scott and the California Academy of Sciences have the decency to correct the record.' How, precisely, did the quote mutate from a blog post into the words of another man in a later-issued press release?

This, and the whole affair, is really typical of ID creationists: they take what may simply be a minor error of fact, ascribe the nastiest possible motives to it while ignoring any mitigating factors, accuse the other side of lying, pull quotations from their original sources, blatantly lie about the most basic facts of the issue, fly to the courts with the most perverse legal theories, and finally paint themselves as martyred victims of the Great Darwinian Steamroller.

(The case is SCV 17921, Placer County Superior Court.)