David Coppedge Ponders His Next Move

Our last post about David Coppedge’s lawsuit against Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and & Caltech was Klinghoffer Unleashed to Defend David Coppedge. Our post before that, David Coppedge v. JPL & Caltech — He’s Fired!, has all the background information you may need to bring you up to date.

Now, in the Pasadena Star News (JPL is located in Pasadena, California) we read Former JPL employee claims he was fired for doubting Darwin. They only permit us to copy a couple of paragraphs, so we’ll do that and mention their other content, leaving it to you to click over there to read the whole article. Here’s the news, with bold added by us:

[Coppedge’s] original lawsuit rested on claims of discrimination under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, [and] Coppedge’s legal team is now considering a new tactics – including taking a page from the Supreme Court’s Jan. 19 in NASA v. Nelson.

Here’s a link to that opinion, which is by Justice Alito: NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION, et al ., PETITIONERS v. ROBERT M. NELSON et al.. But that was a ruling against JPL employees who sought to terminate background checks which they claimed violated their privacy rights. What can Coppedge do with that? Let’s read on:

Becker [Coppedge’s lawyer] said he would seek to amend the complaint within the next two weeks to include a wrongful termination claim – adding that a First Amendment claim might also be on the table. “We’re also considering a First Amendment violation claim based on language contained in the Supreme Court’s (NASA v. Nelson) decision, which characterizes contract employees at JPL as no different from government employees at NASA’s other federally funded research centers,” Becker said.

Is that what NASA v. Nelson holds, and does it matter? Alito’s opinion says:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent federal agency charged with planning and conducting the Government’s “space activities.” … NASA’s workforce numbers in the tens of thousands of employees. While many of these workers are federal civil servants, a substantial majority are employed directly by Government contractors. Contract employees play an important role in NASA’s mission, and their duties are functionally equivalent to those performed by civil servants.

One NASA facility, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is staffed exclusively by contract employees. NASA owns JPL, but the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) operates the facility under a Government contract.

The the Ninth Circuit had ruled that JPL employees didn’t have to be subjected to a government background check because it violated their privacy rights. NASA petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, and they did. Alito’s opinion says:

[T]he Government has an interest in conducting basic employment background checks. Reasonable investigations of applicants and employees aid the Government in ensuring the security of its facilities and in employing a competent, reliable workforce.

[…]

Respondents [the JPL employees] argue that, because they are contract employees and not civil servants, the Government’s broad authority in managing its affairs should apply with diminished force. But the Government’s interest as “proprietor” in managing its operations [citation omitted] does not turn on such formalities. … The record shows that, as a “practical matter,” there are no “[r]elevant distinctions” between the duties performed by NASA’s civil-service workforce and its contractor workforce.

[…]

At JPL, in particular, the work that contract employees perform is critical to NASA’s mission. … The Government has a strong interest in conducting basic background checks into the contract employees minding the store at JPL.

What if Coppedge falls into that description? All it means to us is that he would be required to go through a background check. The decision doesn’t say that he — and other JPL employees — are literally considered to be employees of the federal government for all purposes. And even if that were the case, can federal employees run amok in the workplace and evangelize their colleagues about creationism? We doubt it, but we may have the opportunity to find out.

Anyway, that’s all we can excerpt from the Pasadena Star News, so from here on we’re going to describe some of what it says. They quote a law professor who says NASA v. Nelson is irrelevant to the Coppedge case. We agree. Then they quote a JPL spokeswoman (until now, JPL has been very quiet about this case) who says that their Cassini mission workforce is down 40%, and attrition is natural.

But Becker, who is the lawyer for Coppedge, claims that Coppedge was terminated due to retaliation for the existing lawsuit. Then the newspaper quotes another law professor who says that protections for religious activity doesn’t included speech in the workplace. They also quote a couple of people from the Discovery Institute.

We recommend that you read the whole article, because aside from occasional blogs at the Discoveroids’ website, this is one of the few independent sources of information about this case that we’ve come across — and we’ve been looking.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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6 responses to “David Coppedge Ponders His Next Move

  1. Isn’t the first amendment rather a two-edged sword in this case? If Coppedge was indeed unduly engaged in proselytizing, how is that supposed to fit with the first amendment’s protection against establishment of religion? Sure, free speech if JPL is deemed to be essentially a government agency, but how would that provide JPL’s employees to become a captive audience for another paid employee to regale with apologetic nonsense?

    Of course Luskin squeaks as if pro-religious speech were the same as anti-pseudoscience speech:

    But the gag order applied to no other JPL employees, and in fact JPL has openly tolerated anti-ID speech from its other employees.
    Squeaks from DI’s blog

    I can see why anti-religious speech might not be allowed, so that, if anti-ID speech veered too much to attacks upon religion, I can see why that should be stopped. How, though, is an organization relying upon and dedicated to doing science not supposed to oppose pseudoscientific claptrap like ID, where it makes claims to be science? As a merely religious doctrine, JPL shouldn’t be attacking ID if JPL were considered to be essentially a government agency.

    The Luskin squeak fails because it’s actually true that ID/creationism isn’t science, and science has the right and obligation to say so. Pro-religious speech to the point of proselytization is not something to which government workers ought to be subjected, on the other hand.

  2. If youor Google “free speech federal workplace” you’ll find all sorts of reasonable restrictions that apply to the workplace. Just like yelling “fire!” in a theater is not considered free speech neither is speech that the workplace deems inappropriate.

    For example, I could post on my blog “Obama is gay!” and the government censoring me or blocking my site would be a violation of free speech. However, if I posted that message on the company bulletin board I would certainly get disciplined and my notice would be taken down.

    The same restrictions apply to government employees and at federal facilities.

    As for wrongful termination, my non-legal opinion is that’s a lost cause. It’s difficult enough to prove wrongful termination even when the case seems clear, but for Coppedge it appears to be strictly performance and circumstance. We’ll see.

  3. Wrongful termination will be difficult to prove given the number of other employees laid off at the same time as Coppedge. The attorneys are going to have to argue that he had some special skill that would ordinarily keep him from being laid off, then argue that his religion or speech was the reason for the layoff. I don’t think they can win either argument.

    As to his original case, the DI would like it to be centered on ID, but it was his behavior in the workplace – not the subject matter he was prattling on about. From what we’ve read, he received warnings and had opportunities to change his behavior, but didn’t do so, and eventually was disciplined. I’m sure JPL can find other examples where they’ve had to warn and/or discipline employees for mis-use of time, facilities and equipment or where employees have created an uncomfortable work environment for their co-workers. Coppedge’s obsession happened to be religion/ID, but it could have been almost anything of a controversial nature.

  4. Anika “The Tank” Smith, DI spokesperson said the job of the DI was to “stir up public outrage.”

    Yep, stirring up trouble, that’s the DI’s job. For once Anika tells it like it is!

  5. On layoffs.

    I’ve seen the Good, the Bad and the Ugly get axed in my day. One guy in our group was the top computer wizard. He ran about 20 laboratory computers and nobody knew the system like he did. One day he was gone. It all came down to money. The boss could lay him off or two of us. We had to backfill his position. The boss did ask us in an employee meeting when we were very upset about this layoff, “OK, which two of you volunteer to get laid off and I’ll bring him back.” Nobody raised their hand, including me!

    Was is a stupid layoff? Yes. Did we scramble to support those systems? Yes. Did it make sense? No. Did life go on? Yes.

    So, looking in from the outside, it’s a weak, weak, weak case to say that Coppedge was so critical he couldn’t have been laid off. He was a system admin, probably UNIX and, sorry Coppedge, but your skills are a dime a dozen. My boss once told me that my effect on the company was no more than like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water. He was right. The computers of which I was King are in the landfill, all my programs long gone, not even a memory.

    p.s. One item that was interesting from the newspaper article is that they identified Coppedge as the author of the website “Creation-Evolution Headlines.” Coppedge has been careful to keep his name off that site, although he’s easily identified through the CreationSafaris connection. Coppedge is disparaging of scientists in general, evolutionists in particular and he’s had some nasty things to say about planetary scientists studying Saturn which is his own team, the Cassini Mission. Nice one, Coppedge.

  6. Benjamin Franklin

    Could it be that the EEOC takes a more active role when complaints are regarding government agencies rather than the private sector?