Armenian genocide lawsuit rejected

Judge says no role for court on curriculum guidelines.

June 13, 2009
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Milton J. Valencia

A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit challenging state Department of Education curriculum guidelines that characterize the mass slaying of Armenians at the start of World War I as genocide, saying the court should play no role in deciding on a historic tragedy that remains under international, sensitive debate.

US District Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf said in a long-awaited ruling that state and local education systems have the constitutionally protected right to decide on curriculum as long as it does not infringe on other rights. He said the lawsuit, filed by several students and teachers from Massachusetts, and the Assembly of Turkish America, would be better played out as a public and political debate in the Legislature, than in the courts.

"Except in limited circumstances, decisions concerning what should be taught must be made by state and local boards rather than by federal judges," Wolf said in a detailed, 30-page decision.

The ruling was based strictly on legal grounds, but still Armenian groups saw it as a "win to beat back the denial of genocide." It is a contentious issue that has been debated by academics and historians and still polarizes Turkey and Armenia.
"The government... has the absolute right to present this to students," said Arnold R. Rosenfeld, a Boston-based lawyer who represented the Armenian Assembly of America. "It's reaffirming the fact that the Armenian genocide should be taught in schools, so that people in the future will not tolerate genocide, in whatever country."

But Harvey A. Silverglate, a Cambridge-based free speech lawyer who filed the suit, said the case was not meant to refute the genocide assertion but to provide students with the proper curriculum to judge by themselves. He said neither he nor the students and teachers in the case have come to any decision in how to characterize the slaughter, but that he has seen detailed, academic viewpoints on both sides, what he called a "quintessential" historic debate.

Silverglate argued that the curriculum was developed - without opposing viewpoints, the key part of the case - because of political pressure by Armenian groups, rather than on educational merit. The suit had called for opposing views on the genocide to be included in the state's curriculum guide for schools that addressed the Armenian genocide.

"I have no dog in this fight over whether this was genocide or not," Silverglate said. "But it's outrageous to delete one side of the debate, no matter how outraged the other side is." He also said he may appeal Wolf's ruling.

No one denies the mass killing of Armenians at the hands of the Turks in 1915, but so-called "contra-genocide" arguments have said the slayings were the result of other factors, such as war.

In Massachusetts, the issue is the state Department of Education's curriculum guide on genocide and human rights, which lists several resources including websites, but does not include any counter-arguments. The guide was based on a 1998 state law requiring the development of curriculum on human rights violations including the "Armenian Genocide."

Initially, Turkish-American groups successfully lobbied to have the curriculum include counter-arguments, noting the United Nations and Congress have not decided on the issue. But the inclusion then spurred outrage from Armenian-American groups, resulting in the removal of the counter-arguments from the guidelines.

David P. Driscoll, then the education commissioner, removed the "contra-genocide" arguments, saying the point of the curriculum as stated in the state law was to teach about the "Armenian Genocide." He noted at the time that the curriculum was only advisory, however, and that local school boards could decide how to handle the issue.

J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the state education department, said yesterday that the curriculum guide remains an advisory. He did say that the department welcomed the ruling, however, because it asserts the state's authority in deciding what should be taught in classrooms.

But Bill Schechter, a retired history teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury High School and an original plaintiff in the case, said his concern was that the school curriculum was developed by political pressure, rather than a full accounting of both sides of what remains a contentious issue.

"I think the issues raised by this case should be important to anyone... who is concerned about historical truth being determined by pressure, politics, and that's really what the case was about," he said.