Suit challenges how Armenian genocide is taught

Plaintiffs see state guidelines as censorship.

October 28, 2005
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Shelley Murphy

A high school senior and two teachers have become unlikely allies with a group of Turkish Americans in a federal lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Education over its curriculum on the Armenian genocide.

The student and teachers said yesterday that they don't necessarily agree with a small group of historians who contend that the slaughter of more than a million Armenians by Turks during World War I wasn't genocide.

The case is about censorship, they say, and what they see as state education officials buckling to political pressure and deliberately omitting opposing viewpoints from its course materials about one of the worst massacres in world history.

"I think history teachers have a responsibility to teach students many perspectives of historical events, particularly events that are controversial today," said Ted Griswold, a Lincoln-Sudbury High School senior, who joined the Assembly of Turkish American Associations as a plaintiff in the suit filed Wednesday in US District Court in Boston.

The suit alleges that the Department of Education, its commissioner, David P. Driscoll, and board chairman James A. Peyser, violated the civil rights of free speech and due process by eliminating material from the curriculum that challenged whether the massacre was a genocide.

The Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill in 1998 that required the Department of Education to create guidelines for a high school curriculum on genocide and human rights issues, including the Holocaust, the Irish potato famine, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Armenian genocide.

But after initially including dissenting views from Turkish groups and historians, education officials removed those materials from the curriculum when they received a letter of protest from the bill's sponsor, Senator Steven A. Tolman, a Brighton Democrat.

"The historical fact is that genocide happened; over a million Armenians were slaughtered," said Tolman, citing reports in 1915 from the US ambassador in Turkey that Armenians were being exterminated. "We should not even open the door for any such discussion or attempt to insinuate that it did not take place."

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll, who is also named in the suit, said yesterday that Tolman pointed out that the law clearly referred to the "Armenian genocide," and therefore it would be wrong to include material that suggested it wasn't genocide.

"These people who object to calling it a genocide need to go to the Legislature," said Driscoll. "We're just following a directive as a state agency."

Driscoll said teachers aren't prohibited from including dissenting viewpoints from other groups, or the Turkish government, if they want to expand on the guidelines provided by the state.

But Bill Schechter, a plaintiff in the suit who teaches American history at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, said, ''If they are sending out guides, they should be helpful, thorough, and balanced, where balance is required. Why is the state declaring there is no controversy when there is?"

Those sentiments were echoed by the other teacher who joined in the lawsuit, Lawrence Aaronson, who teaches a constitutional law course at Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School. Aaronson said students need to know multiple perspectives when learning history so they can sort out the truth.

Anthony Barsamian, chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, a Washington-based, nonprofit, advocacy organization, said there is an established historical record about the genocide and the suit is "clearly an affront to all who have ancestors who suffered and were victims of Armenian genocide."

But Boston lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate, who filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, said the American government hasn't taken a position on whether it was a genocide, and the United Nations has never voted on the issue. "Given the fact this is a controversy in which reasonable scholars disagree, I want to see the Legislature... keep their hands off school curriculums and let professional educators decide how to teach these subjects," Silverglate said.