Thursday, May 08, 2008

Alaska legislature funding of climate skeptics only is a potential First Amendment violation

Jeff in Alaska alerted me to this article in the Anchorage Daily News, with a great lede:

The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon -- researchers just have to fill in the science part.

A $2 million program funded with little debate by the Legislature last month calls for using state money to fund an "academic based" conference that highlights contrarian scientific research on global warming. Legislators hope to undermine the public perception of a widespread consensus among polar bear researchers that warming global temperatures and melting Arctic ice threaten the polar bears' survival.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects scientific expression as well as political expression. One of the fundamental rules of free expression is that the government cannot discriminate based on viewpoint. It can't say that science grants are only available to scientists registered as Republicans, for example.

Similarly, for the Alaskan government to offer funding only to those who disagree with the scientific viewpoint that human-caused warming is real, seems to be a straightforward viewpoint discrimination case, one made even worse by the political implications of climate science. If the funding goes through (unclear whether the governor will strike it) and a pro-consensus scientist denied a share of it, that person would have a great case, I think.

I can think of an unusual legal defense strategy though. It's perfectly legal to discriminate against crackpot theories, like the idea that evolution isn't real or that people aren't causing warming, because those theories lack scientific validity and the discrimination doesn't pick one scientific view over another. Alaska could make the converse argument - it isn't discriminating against some scientific viewpoints about climate but all scientific viewpoints, and a "nonsense only" funding screen is acceptable. The state might hesitate to make this argument, though.

I plan to send this post along to climate law and First Amendment bloggers to see what they think.

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