Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Vikram Amar on the Steven Williams Case

The legal scholar weighs in on the issues in the Steven Williams case and says that the real issue is whether the school administration has the authority to put reasonable limits on what a teacher can say to their classes:

But even assuming his proposed lesson plans that make reference to religion would not violate the anti-establishment idea (and we don’t have enough facts to answer this question one way or the other), the school authorities could still be within their legitimate power to prevent Williams from doing what he wants to. The crucial, if underappreciated, point is that a public school does not have any obligation to include as many religious references into its curriculum as the Constitution allows. The Establishment Clause sets an outer limit on how much religion may be included in public life; it does not dictate any minimum religious content…

In the Williams case, some may respond by invoking, as Williams appears to, notions of “academic freedom” that teachers enjoy under the First Amendment. The idea is that so long as a teacher is not violating the Establishment Clause – or any other limitation imposed by the Constitution — he has substantial leeway to teach his class children in the way he thinks will be educationally best. The reality, however, is that individual K-12 teachers do not – in spite of some loose language and rhetoric out there – enjoy broad First Amendment rights of “academic freedom.”

As I’ve stated previously, the state is the defendant here, not the plaintiff. They do not have to prove that the teacher is violating the establishment clause, they only have to prove that their oversight on the teacher is reasonable and lawful. Given that several quotes, and two entire sources, are entirely fictional in the handouts he is using, and given the multiple complaints from parents saying that Williams talked incessantly about Jesus, even during math lessons, that shouldn’t be difficult to prove. Of course the religious right will still claim that it’s all a matter of anti-Christian bigotry, but those claims are starting to sound like the boy who cried wolf.


  1. #1 raj
    December 28, 2004

    I would take a significantly different tack that Mr. Amar. As far as I’m concerned, the teacher is an agent of the state, via his having been hired by the school board and placed in front of a classroom. As such, the teacher is bound to teach what and how the school board tells him to teach. The teacher doesn’t have a first amendment right while he is in front of a classroom to do anything other than what the school board tells him to. He can do what he wants to outside of the schoolroom (I’m exaggerating somewhat), but not while he is in the schoolroom.

    There is no issue of academic freedom. That doctrine originated in a university setting primarily in connection with professors’ research and publishing. Even if academic freedom at the university level were to extend to teaching, it should be obvious that there is one significant difference between teaching at the university level and teaching at the k-12 level. State law–as far as I know–does not require anyone to attend university. This is in stark contrast to laws in most states, which require students to attend k-12 school or its equivalent at least until they reach some minimum age–usually 16. Obviously the public k-12 school is the default. If the parent doesn’t want to–or can’t afford to–send the student to private school, and doesn’t want to home-school him, he has to attend public school. It is that attendance requirement that obviously differentiates k-12 schooling from university.

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