SPLC Apologizes To Lewy, Sparks Questions on Mass. Case


By Thomas C. Nash
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — A human rights group’s recent settlement of a libel lawsuit brought by a professor known for his “contra-genocide” viewpoint on the Armenian Genocide has left some wondering about its position on the issue and whether there could be implications for another high-profile Genocide case.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) issued a retraction and apology to retired University of Massachusetts history professor, Guenter Lewy, 87, in September after a two-year legal battle that began with a 2008 report that said Lewy was part of a network of people being paid by the Turkish government to oppose characterizing the 1915 massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

“We were wrong,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said, noting he drafted the language of the apology and retraction himself. Despite the difficulty in proving malice in libel cases, he noted that the SPLC ultimately decided against going to trial.

“We could have won the case,” Cohen said. “But we decided settling was the morally right thing to do.”

The retraction, however, goes further than noting the organization was incorrect in its assertion that Lewy took money from the Turkish government, noting: “To our knowledge, Professor Lewy has never sought to deny or minimize the deaths of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey; nor has he sought to minimize the Ottoman regime’s grievous wartime miscalculations or indifference to human misery in a conflict earmarked by widespread civilian suffering on all sides.

“What he has argued in his book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, and elsewhere, is that the present historical record does not substantiate a premeditated plan by the Ottoman regime to destroy because of ethnicity, religion or nationality, as opposed to deport for political-military reasons, the Armenian population. In this view, he is joined by such distinguished scholars as Prof. Bernard Lewis of Princeton University. As additional troves of archival information come to light, Professor Lewy advocates greater study of this contentious subject.”

In a statement following the center’s apology, Lewy noted his goal in suing was to defend both his reputation and “unhindered discussion of controversial topics.”

“It must be possible to defend views that contradict conventional wisdom without being called the agent of a foreign government,” he stated.

Cohen stressed, however, that the retraction and apology is not a shift in the center’s attitude toward the Armenian Genocide, noting that in December the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) had sent a letter criticizing the phrasing of the retraction.

“An apology for that statement in an otherwise excellent piece of journalism may be justified,” the IAGS’ letter stated. “Yet, the retraction and apology goes on to make statements that appear to be part of a legal deal and are congruent with the Turkish government’s tactics of denying the Armenian genocide in order to falsify history for the purpose of its nationalist agenda.”

In a response provided to the Mirror-Spectator, Cohen defends the wording of the retraction.

“Like you, we believe that the weight of scholarly opinion supports the conclusion that the murder of Armenians during World War I should be characterized as a genocide,” he wrote. “We said as much in the article we published in 2008, and nothing in our retraction changes our position. We also thought it was appropriate, in light of our error, to make it clear that Professor Lewy acknowledged that the Ottoman Turkish regime bore a degree of responsibility for the murders,” he added. “We hope that others do not confuse our retraction and apology to Professor Lewy as an endorsement of his view on the genocide question.”

George Mason University’s Prof. Gregory Stanton, immediate past-president of IAGS and president of Genocide Watch, said Cohen’s clarification put him at ease.

“[Cohen] reaffirmed the reality of the Armenian Genocide,” Stanton said. “It was very clear to me after reading his response that the Southern Poverty Law Center settled with Lewy so they didn’t get bogged down in endless litigation, when in fact they had made a mistake.”

“I think that was a very reasonable position to take,” he added. “They have much more important legal battles to fight, and I think that was the decision they made.”

Implications for Griswold v. Driscoll?

The settlement has led some observers in the Armenian-American community to wonder about another high-profile Genocide case, which could be moving from Massachusetts to the Supreme Court.

The five-year-old case, brought by two Lincoln-Sudbury High School teachers and a student, with the assistance of Turkish organizations, against the Massachusetts Department of Education’s exclusion of “contra- genocide” materials in an Armenian Genocide curriculum guide, was filed with the US Supreme Court by lead attorney Harvey Silverglate in November.

The plaintiffs in both the Lewy defamation suit and the Griswold case have ties to the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA). The ATAA helped fund the Griswold case, while Lewy attorney David Saltzman is the law partner of Gunay Evinch, ATAA president. Silverglate said that while the cases are different, they ultimately share a common thread of those who “departed from the majority view on the Armenian Genocide” facing unjust attacks. “The censorship of the Massachusetts curricular guide and the know-nothing, reckless assault on Lewy’s integrity grow out of the same intolerance on any difference on the Genocide issue,” Silverglate said.

Meanwhile, Silverglate is waiting for word from the Supreme Court on whether the case will be heard.

“If the US Supreme Court takes the case, I think we’ll win,” he said. “But the chances are between 1 and 5 percent. The odds are against us, but the issue is of extreme importance.”

Stanton, who helped write an amicus curiae brief filed by IAGS on behalf of the defense, said the two cases shared little in common other than the genocide.

“The [Griswold] decision was upheld in an opinion written by [former Supreme Court Justice] Souter himself,” Stanton said. “It completely demolished the position of the Turkish lobby that the Mass. Board of Education had a duty to keep denial websites on its list of recommended websites for teachers.

“Souter, I think rightly, said the Mass. Board of Education created their list of sites they recommend and they had every right to edit it and to alter it. This was not a first amendment issue.”