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An Academic Right to an Opinion

May 4, 2012

A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the University of Minnesota could not be sued because the website of one of its research centers had labeled another website "unreliable."

The statements made by the University of Minnesota website were protected legally -- either by being true or by being opinion -- said the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The website that prompted the suit is run by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Minnesota. Scholars there, consistent with the consensus view of historians of genocide, include the slaughter of Armenians during World War I as a case of genocide. The suit challenged the right of the center to label as "unreliable" a website of the Turkish Coalition of America that cast doubt on whether the Armenians experienced a genocide.

Not surprisingly, the case has been closely followed by historians of that period in history. But the case has also been tracked by scholars concerned about academic freedom generally, some of whom worried that a dangerous precedent could have been set by a suit against an academic center for expressing its views on areas of scholarship. The Middle East Studies Association, for example, has called on the Turkish Coalition of American to withdraw the suit.

"We fear that legal action of this kind may have a chilling effect on the ability of scholars and academic institutions to carry out their work freely and to have their work assessed on its merits, in conformity with standards and procedures long established in the world of scholarship," said a statement from the group.

An irony of the case is that the label of "unreliable" was removed from the Minnesota website -- at about the time the Turkish coalition was criticizing it but before the suit was filed in 2010. Minnesota officials said that they didn't want to send anyone to the websites that cast doubt on the Armenian genocide, so they removed the list of "unreliable" websites from a webpage with teaching and research links. However, the university has defended the right of the research center to have had the list up in the first place, and most of the appeals court decision is written as if Minnesota still had such a link.

Last year, a federal district court ruled that academic freedom protected the Minnesota website, but the Turkish coalition appealed, setting up Thursday's ruling. The appeals court rejected arguments in the appeal by the Turkish coalition that the university violated its First Amendment rights and defamed it by identifying the coalition's website as unreliable. A central argument by the coalition was that students at the university would be denied access to the coalition's ideas, and thus that the free exchange of ideas was hindered when a center at a public university labeled the website unreliable.

On the First Amendment issue, the Turkish coalition cited court rulings in which, for example, secondary schools were found to be violating First Amendment rights of students by removing certain books from the library. The appeals court noted that those cases were based on blocking access to information -- something that the court said the University of Minnesota never did.

"There is no allegation that the defendants impaired students’ access to the TCA website on a university-provided Internet system," the appeals court's decision says. "There is no hint in the complaint that university students were not free to, for example, read the TCA website, e-mail material from the TCA website to their friends, regale passers-by on the sidewalk with quotes from the TCA website, and so forth. In short, TCA’s website was not 'removed' from the university in any sense."

The Turkish coalition's appeal argued that the Minnesota website defamed the coalition by saying it engages in "denial" of the Armenian genocide, by calling it "unreliable," by saying that it features a "strange mix of fact and opinion," and that it is "an illegitimate source of information." The coalition argued that by labeling its website a "denial" website, the Minnesota center was maligning it because the term "denial," in the context of the study of genocide, "implies denial of well-documented underlying facts associated with a genocidal event."

The appeals court ruling, however, says that the issue here is whether the coalition denies the Armenian genocide. "Because the TCA website does, in fact, state that it is 'highly unlikely that a genocide charge could be sustained against the Ottoman government or its successor' based on the historical evidence, the center’s statement under this interpretation is true and, thus, still not actionable," the appeals court decision says. "The remaining three statements can be interpreted reasonably only as subjective opinions, rather than facts," the opinion adds, rejecting the defamation charges there as well.

A lawyer for the Turkish coalition did not respond to a request for comment.

 

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