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Is Oklahoma investigating Richard Dawkins free speech?

The Eternally Radical Idea

In a case that harkens back to the old-timey censorship of yesteryear, it appears that the Oklahoma legislature is pulling out the stops to oppose the University of Oklahoma's decision to host the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on its campus. Dawkins was invited to speak at an event celebrating the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

In a move sure to score political points with some constituents, Oklahoma representative Todd Thomsen proposed not one but two resolutions condemning Dawkins and asking the University to disinvite him. One of the resolutions reads:

A Resolution expressing disapproval of the actions of the University of Oklahoma to indoctrinate students in the theory of evolution; opposing the invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak on campus; and directing distribution.

WHEREAS, the University of Oklahoma is a publicly funded institution which should be open to all ideas and should train students in all disciplines of study and research and to use independent thinking and free inquiry, not indoctrinate
students in one-sided study and thinking; and

WHEREAS, the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma has, as evidenced on the departmental homepage, been framing the Darwinian theory of evolution as doctrinal dogmatism rather than a hypothetical construction within the disciplines of the sciences; and

WHEREAS, not only has the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma been engaged in one-sided indoctrination of an unproven and unpopular theory but has made an effort to brand all thinking in dissent of this theory as anti-intellectual and backward rather than nurturing such free thinking and allowing a free discussion of all ideas which is the primary purpose of a university; and

WHEREAS, the University of Oklahoma has planned a year-long celebration of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of Darwin's controversial theory of evolution, called the "Darwin 2009 Project", which includes a series of lectures, public speakers, and a course on the history of evolution; and

WHEREAS, the University of Oklahoma, as a part of the Darwin 2009 Project, has invited as a public speaker on campus, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published opinions, as represented in his 2006 book "The God Delusion", and public statements on the theory of evolution demonstrate an intolerance for cultural diversity and diversity of thinking and are views that are not shared and are not representative of the thinking of a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma; and

WHEREAS, the invitation for Richard Dawkins to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma on Friday, March 6, 2009, will only serve to further the indoctrination engaged in by the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma by presenting a biased philosophy on the theory of evolution to the exclusion of all other divergent considerations rather than teaching a scientific concept.


THAT the Oklahoma House of Representatives hereby expresses its disapproval of the current indoctrination of the Darwinian theory of evolution at the University of Oklahoma and further requests that an open, dignified, and fair discussion of this idea and all other ideas be engaged in on campus which is the approach that a public institution should be engaged in and which represents the desire and interest of the citizens of Oklahoma.

THAT the Oklahoma House of Representative strongly opposes the invitation to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma to Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published statements on the theory of evolution and opinion about those who do not believe in the theory are contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma.

THAT a copy of this resolution be transmitted to the President of the University of Oklahoma, the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Oklahoma, and the Chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma.

Despite the sound and fury, Dawkins went ahead as scheduled on March 6, packing in an audience of several thousands. Case closed, right?

Not so fast.

I have received indication from numerous sources that the Oklahoma legislature is pressing ahead with an investigation of the event, probably to divine if any state funds were used. Dawkins, for his part, adamantly denies accepting a single cent for the speech. He specifically waived his normal honorarium, because this would be a mainly student audience. Even if he had taken money, however, the University department that invited Dawkins would have been perfectly within its rights to pay him. If this investigation is indeed taking place, what the state legislature needs to understand is that in court cases dating back to the days of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, even investigating clearly protected speech on the basis of its viewpoint violates the First Amendment.

Think about it: If every time a student or faculty member invited, say, Rick Warren to speak on campus, they knew they would be subjected to a thorough and time-consuming investigation by state officials, you can all but guarantee that schools across the country would think twice before inviting Rick Warren. This would be a great way for state legislatures to chill speech they dislike without ever having to find the speaker guilty of a single thing. Talk about your un-American activities.

Given the fact the legislature clearly is concerned with nothing other than Dawkins' viewpoint, such an investigation is improper and should end immediately.

I wrote the president of the University of Oklahoma Thursday afternoon along with Paul B. Bell, Jr., Dean, College of Arts and Sciences and Vice Provost for Instruction; William J. Matthews, Chair, Department of Zoology; Gordon E. Uno, Chair, Department of Botany and Microbiology; and George B. Richter-Addo, Chair, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to ask if this investigation was indeed going forward. I hope someone there will clarify the situation as soon as possible. Boren wrote back yesterday with a non-responsive response, saying only that he is passing along my request for information as an open records request.

And before I begin to receive the hate mail that will inevitably pile in from the various religious groups that have been most opposed to Dawkins' speech, I ask only one thing: Before you write, please check out my record (and that of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, of which I am President) of defending the freedom of speech and association of Christian groups across the country.

While I'm not personally religious, FIRE and I have proudly defended the freedoms of hundreds of evangelical Christian groups over the years, most recently a Christian group at Wright State University that was told that it could not "discriminate" against non-Christians in their leadership (an argument that you will find is bizarrely common on college campuses). Anyone who wishes to have their own freedom of speech and association rights respected should make a practice of respecting the freedom of speech of others. People have every right to protest Dawkins, to write angry letters, and to argue against his beliefs. But when you start a campaign to exclude a speaker with whom you disagree, or seek to use the power of the legislative branch to investigate perfectly lawful and protected expressive activity, you undermine the foundation of the very same rights that entitle you to your opinions in the first place.

President Boren, can you please clarify what's going on at your school?

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