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Protect diversity of opinion

A third-grade girl at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder, Colo., used black and white Barbie dolls in her science-fair project. She asked 30 adults and 30 fifth-graders which doll was prettier, switching the dolls' outfits for half of each group.

Pretty sophisticated for the third grade, I'd say.

All the adults picked the doll wearing the lavender dress, black or white.

Among the children, 24 picked the white doll.

"I discovered that . . . kids mostly liked the white Barbie. Only six kids liked the black Barbie," the young researcher concluded.

An hour after the science fair opened, teachers removed her project, saying it violated the district's nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits saying anything that might have the effect of demeaning the race of an individual or group.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is prepared to sue if the district does not change its policies, said its chairman, Barry Satlow.

"The inevitable result of overbroad policies like this is overreaction by school officials," Satlow wrote in a letter to district officials.

It's a great letter, though I am not entirely convinced that the policy is unconstitutional in an elementary school. But even if it's legally permissible, it is educationally unsound. A science fair is a public forum for the discussion and encouragement of scientific thinking. "Don't do anything controversial" is not a scientific principle.

Such a rule would be a bad idea at any time, but imposing it after the fact rates fines doubled for political correctness. If she'd found less evidence of race consciousness among the students, would the teachers have reacted the same way? Surely one of the lessons children should be learning about science is that sometimes you get results you weren't expecting and don't much like.

The Rocky Mountain Skeptics had a lively discussion about the Barbie controversy at its meeting last weekend, on whether the group should take an official position opposing the school's action. Members were divided on that, and if I were a member I would be inclined to say no, on the grounds that groups formed for another purpose should not get involved in political activities. But there was very broad agreement that the school shouldn't have let politics trump science.

That the 15 children who saw the white doll in the lavender dress picked it means nothing; so did the adults. In the other group of 15, nine picked the white doll in the ugly clothes and six the black doll in the lavender dress.

The result hardly implies rampant racism, but it does suggest that the children are race-conscious in some way that the adults are not.

If every topic that might give offense to someone is excluded from debate, there's not much left to talk about. Schools should protect diversity of opinion as zealously as they protect other kinds.

Contact Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News at www.