Court Dismisses Turkish Group’s Lawsuit Against U. of Minnesota over Website


By Peter Schmidt

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Chronicle of Higher Education) — An academic center at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was within its rights when it discouraged students from using a website that challenges claims Armenians were victims of a genocide by Ottoman Turks, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday in dismissing a lawsuit brought against the university by a student and a Turkish advocacy group.

 

The judge, Donovan W. Frank of the US District Court in St. Paul, said in his ruling that academic freedom protected the right of the university’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies to tell students a website maintained by the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) should be avoided as unreliable.

 

He rejected the coalition’s assertion that the center’s characterization of the website amounted to defamation, holding that the center’s assessment of the site was a constitutionally- protected academic opinion and not a purported statement of fact that could conceivably be proved false in court.

 

“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 course work shall be taught,” the ruling says. The center’s conclusion that the killing of Armenians during World War I was an act of genocide similarly is a viewpoint “within the purview of the university’s academic freedom to comment on and critique academic views held and expressed by others,” Frank wrote.

 

The lawsuit brought against the university by the Turkish Coalition and a freshman who had sought to use its Web site in class had been closely watched by several scholarly groups. The Middle East Studies Association had issued an open letter urging the center to withdraw its lawsuit, arguing that it posed a threat to academic freedom. The International Association of Genocide Scholars and the Society for Armenian Studies had similarly defended the university’s decision to discourage students from using the Turkish Coalition site.

 

Bruce E. Fein, a lawyer for the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund who helped represent the plaintiffs in the case, said he was “disappointed” with the judge’s decision but did not know whether the plaintiffs planned to appeal. “We certainly agree that academic freedom needs be defended,” he said, but the judge failed to see whose side the principle was on, by missing how the university center was citing academic freedom as a pretext for “suppressing an idea.”

 

Fein said the Turkish Coalition nonetheless was grateful that the center had chosen, in the midst of the controversy, to remove from its own website a list of “unreliable websites” that had included the coalition’s site. Although the center has denied the list was removed in response to the coalition’s complaints, Fein alleged that the deletion of the list represented “a tacit concession” that the posting of such a list had not been in accordance with mainstream pedagogy.