Unusual Ruling for Academic Freedom

Federal judge rejects lawsuit by Turkish group against U. of Minnesota for one of its research centers having declared the organization's material "unreliable."
March 31, 2011

A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit against the University of Minnesota over the website of one of its centers -- and the right of that center to deem another website "unreliable."

At one level the suit focused on history and the dispute over why so many Armenians were killed during World War I. But more broadly, the case involved two competing claims of academic freedom.

The website of Minnesota's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies makes clear that its faculty members believe (consistent with the consensus view of historians) that what happened to the Armenians was a genocide. Many Turkish groups disagree, and the suit was sparked by the university's labeling of the information on the Turkish Coalition of America's website as "unreliable." The group sued, arguing that the label amounted to an unfair endorsement by the university of a specific position -- and that doing so discouraged students and faculty members from asserting other points of view, in violation of the principles of academic freedom.

Judge Donovan W. Frank found that academic freedom issues were central to the case -- but he sided with the University of Minnesota, which argued that its faculty members had the right to express their views on the genocide center's website -- including views criticizing websites that argue against the certainty of an Armenian genocide.

"The court concludes that this case is properly viewed in the context of academic freedom and that defendants' statements are protected by that freedom," Judge Frank wrote. "The CHGS [the genocide studies center] is free to indicate to students that it thinks certain websites are not proper sources for scholarly research. The ability of the university and its faculty to determine the reliability of sources available to students to use in their research falls squarely within the university’s freedom to determine how particular coursework shall be taught. The CHGS also acknowledges their viewpoint that the killing of Ottoman Armenians during World War I was genocide. This viewpoint, as well, is within the purview of the university’s academic freedom to comment on and critique academic views held and expressed by others."

Mark B. Rotenberg, general counsel for Minnesota, said that the ruling was unusual in that it was decided strictly on the issue of academic freedom. Many federal court rulings, he noted, refer to academic freedom but are based in the end on the First Amendment, due process or other legal rights.

"We see this as a highly significant federal decision involving academic freedom, since there are so few cases that are decided squarely on the principle of academic freedom," he said.

Rotenberg said that, had the Turkish Coalition of America been successful, the ramifications could have extended well beyond Minnesota or scholars of the Armenian genocide. Any time that faculty members or a research center shared views that others might contest, a university could have been at risk of being sued, he said. Instead, a federal judge has affirmed that "faculties don't have to be completely neutral in expressing their views of others' scholarly writing, and that they can have a perspective that advocates one academic perspective over another.... This is a very important vindication for academic freedom."

Bruce Fein, one of the lawyers for the Turkish Coalition of America, said that the group was still studying the decision and had not decided whether to appeal. Fein said that the judge "did not address the substance of our arguments" and seemed to accept the University of Minnesota's claims about its views of academic freedom. Fein said that, in his view, "academic freedom was a pretense in trying to indoctrinate rather than educate." He said that, in the name of academic freedom, the university was trying "to impose an orthodoxy."

The university and its defenders have responded by saying that Minnesota has never banned anyone from doing research or expressing ideas such as those of the Turkish Coalition with regard to what happened to the Armenians. But that does not mean, Minnesota has argued, that its faculty members and research centers can't express a view on the issue.

Several scholarly associations -- the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the Middle East Studies Association and the Society for Armenian Studies -- opposed the suit.

In a public letter to the coalition, the Middle East studies group said: "Your organization, and those who hold perspectives different from those expressed by scholars associated with the Center, certainly have the right to participate in open scholarly exchange on the history of the Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire or any other issue, by presenting their views at academic conferences, in the pages of peer-reviewed scholarly journals or by other means, thereby opening them up to debate and challenge. We are distressed that you instead chose to take legal action against the University of Minnesota and its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, apparently for having at one point characterized views expressed on your website in a certain way. 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. Your lawsuit may thus serve to stifle the free expression of ideas among scholars and academic institutions regarding the history of Armenians in the later Ottoman Empire, and thereby undermine the principles of academic freedom."


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