ISSUES & CASES

CENSORSHIP OR ACADEMIC FREEDOM?

Last year, the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) and freshman student Sinan Cingilli sued the President of the University of Minnesota, the Director of its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS), and the University itself for constitutional violations in the process of dishonoring its own statement of academic freedom. The Board of Regents for the University declared on December 8, 2006: “Academic freedom is essential to achieving the University’s mission. Community members are expected to: promote academic freedom, including the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression and to speak and write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint; and…defend intellectual honesty and freedom of inquiry and instruction [and] to respect those with differing views…”

The lawsuit stems from that broken promise. Unique in the annals of American education, the CHGS created a list of “unreliable” websites that students were, in practical effect, prohibited from visiting or using. The purpose of the blacklisting was to “delegitimize” viewpoints that dispute the Armenian genocide thesis. Every banned website addressed either the Holocaust or the Armenian question. None addressed Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, Srebrenica, or other modern horrors. The CHGS juxtaposition was intended to equate disputants of the Armenian thesis with delusional Holocaust deniers. TCA was featured as Number 1 on the CHGS blacklist. Yet, the majority of books TCA’s website recommends for reading are available in the University of Minnesota’s library.

The CHGS blacklist did not reflect scholastic evaluations of the banned websites, but visceral hostility to the viewpoint that contradicts the Armenian thesis. CHGS standards for blacklisting were foreign to the world of scholarship: “denial,” or “strange mixture of fact and opinion.” Moreover, the blacklist authors were anonymous, and the prohibited websites were denied any opportunity to respond or to appeal their blacklisting.

Freshman student Sinan Cingilli inquired of CHGS Director Bruno Chaouat about the blacklist. He was told the banned websites had been marked with a “scarlet letter.” Cingilli asked four times whether he would be punished academically if he visited or used the TCA website, and four times Chaouat refused to provide any assurance against academic retaliation.

The TCA-Cingilli Complaint alleges that the Defendants’ de facto prohibition on student visitation or use of the TCA website and its juxtaposition with Holocaust denial websites violated various free speech rights and defamed TCA by implying scholastic fraud. The Defendants have asked the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota to dismiss the Complaint. They argue that everything done by the CHGS—including banning student uses of the websites to suppress a disliked idea—was an expression of professorial opinion and scholastic judgment that cannot be questioned in court proceedings.

Oral argument on the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss was held before District Judge Donovan Frank on February 4, 2011.

Plaintiffs argued that the terms “denial” and “strange mixture of fact and opinion” as standards to blacklist websites were devoid of objective meaning and were unconstitutionally vague. Defendant denied that the websites were blacklisted because students were not denied access to them.

Plaintiffs contended that blacklisting TCA’s website as “unreliable” without notice or an opportunity to respond violated constitutional due process. Defendants argued that the blacklist was no more than an expression of professorial opinions that students were free to dispute or question.

Plaintiffs asserted that singling out TCA’s viewpoint for blacklisting because it disputes the Armenian thesis while omitting other websites that dispute other claimed genocides violated the evenhandedness required by free speech. Defendants argued that the decision to single out TCA’s viewpoint because of hostility to ideas that contradict the Armenian thesis was protected academic freedom

Plaintiffs argued that marking TCA’s website with a “scarlet letter” and discouraging students from visiting or using it in order to suppress educationally sound viewpoints that dispute the Armenian thesis violated freedom of speech. Defendants maintained that TCA’s website was banned to students because of deficient scholarship in the opinion of CHGS professors, and that academic motivation could not be challenged without violating academic freedom.

Plaintiffs argued that prohibiting student Cingilli from visiting or using TCA’s website for the purpose of denying him access to a viewpoint that disputes the Armenian thesis violated his First Amendment right to receive information. Defendants argued that students have no right to learn of ideas that professors deem unmeritorious.

Plaintiffs maintained that Defendants’ accusation that the TCA website constitutes “scholastic fraud” in disputing the Armenian thesis was an intentionally false and defamatory assertion of fact unprotected by the First Amendment. Defendants argued that their use of “scholastic fraud” to describe TCA’s website was mere professorial opinion protected by freedom of speech.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Frank stated he would file a Memorandum Opinion and Order addressing the Motion to Dismiss in 45 days.

 

 

 
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Turkish American Legal Defense Fund - TALDF
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