MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.—The Middle East Studies Association is urging the Turkish Coalition of America to withdraw a lawsuit against the University of Minnesota over materials, since removed from the university’s genocide studies website, calling a website of the Turkish group an “unreliable” source for information about the Armenian genocide, which most scholars say happened, and which the Turkish group questions, reported the Inside Higher Ed Web site.
In a 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.”
Bruce Fein, one of the lawyers for those suing the University of Minnesota (a group that includes a student there), rejected the criticisms from the Middle East scholars. Via e-mail, Fein said that “it is obvious that the letter writers never bothered to read the complaint…. The complaint explicitly renounces what the misinformed letter authors assert: that we are challenging the right of professors to voice their opinions about the reliability of web or other information sources. The complaint questions the authority of a state school to de facto prohibit students from visiting websites solely because of the viewpoint expressed and not for any bona fide educational purpose. If I were a teacher, I would give an F grade to the letter for failure of the writers to do their homework and egregiously misrepresenting the facts without even contacting the opposing side.”
On Nov. 30, the TCA, together with first-year university student Sinan Cingilli, originally from Turkey, sued the university for posting a list of “unreliable websites” on its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Web site. The list of websites deemed unreliable to the study of genocide—because they promoted genocide denial—included that of the TCA.
On Dec. 17, the university asked the Minnesota District Court to dismiss the case brought forth by the TCA against the university.
TCA has opted to move forward and a hearing is scheduled to take place on Feb. 4.
According to the Minnesota Daily, the lawsuit has seven charges, including ones relating to freedom of speech, due process, and defamation.
The lawsuit also targets University President Robert Bruininks and Prof. Bruno Chaouat, the director of CHGS.
The hearing is likely to take place at the U.S. courthouse in St. Paul. The proceedings are open to the public. The dates may be rescheduled at short notice, but will be posted on the daily calendar.
The university removed the list before the suit was brought forth, but insisted the decision was made prior to the court case.
In an open letter posted on the CHGS website, Chaouat wrote that his motive to remove the list of “unreliable websites” was to refrain from giving those sites any publicity. “My rationale was quite simple: never promote, even negatively, sources of illegitimate information,” he wrote.
Chaouat went on to note that the center, “in accordance with the vast majority of serious and rigorous historians…considers the massacre of the Armenians during World War I as a case of genocide.”
“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,” wrote Chaouat. This latter statement brought forth another defamation charge.
“Intimidation by filing a lawsuit might be believable if we were a great big corporation and he was a little guy somewhere, but the fact is that [Chaouat represents] a major state university. As a matter of law, you can’t be charged with intimidation for filing a lawsuit; that’s everybody’s legal right,” the local counsel for the plaintiff, Larry Frost, was quoted as saying.
Reportedly, TCA is claiming it has no idea why it was placed on the “unreliable websites” list. Cingilli has claimed that “The point of the case is to remove obstacles to free, critical thinking.”
Bruce Fein from the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund has reportedly claimed that the CHGS was influenced by its donors, which include Armenian organizations.
Although the list has been removed, there is still a “warning to researchers” box on the center’s “curriculum models” page 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…”
“As a legal matter we didn’t find anything defamatory or inconsistent with academic freedom in that little box. There was no restriction on free speech,” Mark Rotenberg, the university general counsel, was quoted as saying. “This organization is trying to convert an academic, political, and historical debate into a lawsuit, and that’s not right.”