The University of Minnesota was sued in federal court Tuesday over allegations that a website maintained by its Holocaust studies center defamed a Turkish-American organization in a way that raised First Amendment and due process issues. The suit came just days after the Holocaust center removed the material that is the focus of the suit -- although the university maintains that it acted as part of a routine review and not because of the threat of litigation.
Underlying the legal dispute is the debate over what happened to the Armenians during World War I. Among most scholars of genocide, there is a wide consensus that the deaths (some say up to 1.5 million of them) constituted a genocide. A minority of scholars (and many Turkish-American groups) disagree -- and some of those who differ have been called "deniers." The material that was removed from the Minnesota website was a list of "unreliable websites" for research on genocide -- including the website of the Turkish Coalition of America.
The Minnesota lawsuit follows a retraction (under legal pressure) by the Southern Poverty Law Center of statements it made about a retired University of Massachusetts professor who has written books that cast doubt on the view that the Armenians suffered a genocide. David Saltzman, a lawyer involved in the suit against Minnesota and the one against the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in an interview Tuesday night that "the prospect of further litigation is great."
Minnesota's Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies (CHGS) features a range of materials for use by students, researchers and teachers. The list of "unreliable" links was included in the mix of offerings.
Bruno Chaouat, director of the center, posted a note this week explaining that a review of the website had been going on -- irrespective of the complaints of Turkish-American groups. "I decided to remove the section providing links to 'unreliable websites.' My rationale was quite simple: never promote, even negatively, sources of illegitimate information," he wrote. "During almost 20 years working in higher education, I have never put a dubious source on a syllabus for my students, not even for the purpose of delegitimizing the source. The decision to remove the links to 'unreliable websites' was made before the Turkish Coalition of America began its efforts to intimidate CHGS into removing the links. The links were replaced with legitimate information devoted to the history, ideology and psychology of Holocaust and genocide denial."
Chaouat added that he believes that what happened to the Armenians was in fact genocide. "On behalf of the CHGS, I want to reiterate that in accordance with the vast majority of serious and rigorous historians, the CHGS considers the massacre of the Armenians during World War I as a case of genocide."
The Minnesota Holocaust studies center still features a "warning to researchers" that states: "Students and researchers should be aware that there is a proliferation of websites operated by Holocaust and genocide deniers that CHGS and others in the academic community consider unreliable. CHGS encourages all researchers to exercise caution when they use the Internet and any other media (films, books, journals, etc). Our center, staff, advisory board and experts are here to assist researchers on a case-by-case basis. We consider it our obligation to orient researchers toward reference materials which, in our opinion, represent the best scholarship in the field of Holocaust and genocide issues."
Saltzman, the lawyer for the Turkish Coalition of America, said that the removed list amounted to defamation of the views of the Turkish group and had the impact of limiting academic freedom because students would feel discouraged from quoting materials from a group labeled "unreliable" by a university source. Further, he said that there were due process issues because there was no formal way for a group like the coalition to appeal the placement of its website on the "unreliable" list.
As to the First Amendment, he said that the university gave "a clear overtone of an academic penalty" for anyone who used the Turkish group's materials. (Those materials continue to dispute the Armenian genocide.) Saltzman said that he considered the "warning to researchers" to be "a poor cousin" to the original list of questionable websites. The university, he said, "is saying 'we're no long defaming by wide broadcast, but we're going to whisper it to you if you call us.' "
Minnesota officials were not able to respond to the lawsuit Tuesday night. But Mark Rotenberg, general counsel for the university, earlier told The St. Paul Pioneer Press (prior to the suit being filed) that the list of unreliable websites didn't restrict free speech, and that students were not barred from visiting sites on the list. He also said that the site didn't defame anyone because it was an opinion of faculty members in an academic program. "The department gets to have that opinion," he said.
The lawsuit against Minnesota follows one by Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, against the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lewy's lawsuit focused on two statements in a Southern Poverty Law Center document that suggested that he was financially backed in his research by Turkey's government.
That article now features a "retraction and apology" that says in part: "We now realize that we misunderstood Professor Lewy’s scholarship, were wrong to assert that he was part of a network financed by the Turkish Government, and were wrong to assume that any scholar who challenges the Armenian genocide narrative necessarily has been financially compromised by the Government of Turkey. We hereby retract the assertion that Professor Lewy was or is on the Government of Turkey’s payroll."