ISSUES & CASES

A VICTORY FOR FREE SPEECH IN SPRINGFIELD, NJ - PART I
TURKISH AMERICANS STAND UP FOR FREE SPEECH IN NEW JERSEY
LIBRARY BOARD REJECTS ARMENIAN AMERICAN PROTESTS OF AN EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM


Springtime usually brings with it the publication of numerous stories regarding the fate of the Ottoman Armenians, most of which go beyond vilifying the Ottoman authorities of the early 20th century to imputing guilt upon the Republic of Turkey, its citizens, ethnic Turks and anyone else who may question the Armenian allegation of genocide. Knowing this, several New Jersey Turkish Americans, led by Omer Kitaplioglu and Mehmet Toy, began working several months ago to add their viewpoint to the debate during this critical season.

They succeeded in scheduling a presentation of the 2006 documentary, "The Armenian Revolt" at the Springfield Free Public Library Guenter Lewy, author of, "The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide", also was invited to discuss his book following the film. The Turkish Americans abided by all of the library’s rules and regulations, ensuring that the event would be free and open to the public.

Opposition Gathers

As April 20, the date of the event, approached and the event was locally advertised several Armenian individuals and organizations began asking the library to censor the event. For example, Dennis Papazian, a member of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, wrote, “It is shameful that you are sponsoring an Armenian genocide denial group at your library. I suppose next time you will present German Holocaust deniers.” Another writer said that “the Library’s attitude [to permit the event] amounts just to a Turkish propaganda. … I would never have thought that our taxes will go to sponsor deniers.” Still another asked, “Are you trying to rewrite history with Turkey? … Would you have done something like this for Ahmadinejad denying the Holecust? [sic]” One protestor even accused the library of accepting a bribe: “I was just curious, because I saw that the Turks who killed over 1.5 million Armenians are being permitted to show their side of the story at a PUBLIC LIBRARY. I was amazed, because usually this sort of denial propaganda is permitted by means of bribery at small private institutions, however, it seems that bribery is now permitted at the Public Library. I am willing to pay big money to show how careless these revolting Jews were in offending the German people's party. … May the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

A New Jersey attorney, Adrienne Haroutunian McOmber, apparently then telephoned the library announcing her intention to petition the Library Board of Trustees to prohibit the program because it would, she argued, represent advocacy by a narrow interest group.

The Library Director’s Keen Sense For Civil Rights

Ms. Susan Permahos, the library’s Director, responded to several of the protestors. To Mr. Papazian she wrote, “Once a library establishes itself as a public forum, we are required to allow any groups that meet our basic requirements to use our meeting rooms. This was established by the Supreme Court in more than one ruling. It is a basic tenet of Freedom of Speech.” Thus, she made clear two crucial points: that the library is a public forum and that its programs, therefore, are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ms. Permahos continued, “Please come to the program and offer your side of the story and debate this issue. That is the purpose of this forum. Alternatively, if you have a film or a scholar who would like to schedule an opposing view on another date, we would be happy to schedule it.” She then volunteered to publicize the April 20 event via the internet to Armenian churches and community organizations.

Ms. Permahos also expressed her awareness of the “Library Bill of Rights” established by the American Library Association, which reads in part, “If meeting rooms in libraries supported by public funds are made available to the general public for non-library sponsored events, the library may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or based on the ideas that the group advocates.”

TALDF Consulted

Messrs. Kitaplioglu and Toy, understanding that the protestors would be bringing counsel to the library’s board meeting on April 17, contacted the TALDF, which then offered its support. The TALDF sent a letter to the library’s director elaborating upon the state and federal constitutional bases for the guarantee of free speech in a public forum such as a library.

The TALDF also volunteered to send counsel to the April 17 library board meeting to respond to any possible argument that the April 20 program could somehow be censored without violating the U.S. Constitution. The TALDF also worked with Turkish Americans to educate them about the issues at stake at the board meeting, reminding them that the dispute did not concern Ottoman history at all, but rather American civil rights, chief among them free speech. Turkish Americans are now well aware that the remedy for disagreeable speech is more speech, not enforced silence (as taught by Justice Louis Brandeis in Whitney v. California (1927)).

The April 17 Board Meeting: A Complete Victory for Free Speech

The library’s Board of Trustees convened on the evening of April 17 and heard 90 minutes of discussion about the prospective April 20 program. At the conclusion of the discussion, the six members of the board agreed by consensus to reject the Armenian demand to cancel the program. The TALDF was represented at the hearing by Mr. Bruce Fein who underscored the First Amendment’s requirement of viewpoint neutrality in public forums. He also focused on the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Louisiana, a 1966 case that specifically upheld free speech rights in public libraries. (In Brown, protesting racial discrimination was at issue.) Several Turkish Americans also spoke. Omer Kitaplioglu revealed the hypocrisy in protesting the April 20 program as “political” because of its contra-genocide viewpoint while just the previous week New Jersey’s state university hosted a lecture promoting the genocide thesis. In addition, one gentleman who, stating he was from apartheid-era South Africa, said that while he did not care who was right or who was wrong on the Turkish-Armenian controversy, he cared passionately that free speech be preserved.

The protestors, who numbered more than a dozen, apparently were drawn primarily from outside New Jersey. Rather than challenge the First Amendment analysis made by the TALDF and others, they resorted to bullying language and assertions that the library would become complicit in the original alleged genocide by tolerating free speech about the issue. This was nothing short of an attempt to intimidate the trustees. And, to the credit of the board, it failed.

The April 20 Event

Approximately 70 people attended the “Armenian Revolt” film screening and the talk by Professor Lewy. The response to the film and talk was enthusiastic. In fact, because of the large number of questions for Professor Lewy, the library agreed to remain open an extra half hour. Individuals representing both sides of the Turkish-Armenian controversy posed questions.

All of the copies of Professor Lewy’s book offered for sale were purchased by audience members. Several inquiries were made about purchasing copies of the DVD of “The Armenian Revolt.” Apparently the thirst for knowledge of all sides of the Turkish-Armenian controversy is sincere.

The Library Director’s Last Word

Today, books supporting both rival viewpoints are available for users of the Springfield Free Public Library. Among the works recently added are Professor Lewy’s, “The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide” and Justin McCarthy’s “The Armenian Rebellion at Van.”

Following the event, the Director of the library recognized the program’s success. She stated, “I will say that if nothing else, we have all learned more about this issue than any of us ever knew before which was certainly my intent in booking the program. This was not covered in American schools when we all went to school and I had a difficult time finding books about the topic in our New Jersey libraries. We both achieved our purpose of enlightening people on this issue.”

Lessons Learned From This Success

The TALDF was proud to have contributed to this victory for free speech and congratulates all who stood up for this bedrock principle of our American democracy. One lesson to be drawn from the April 17 Board of Trustees meeting is the benefit of succinctness and lucidity in presenting Turkish American views. We also saw the benefit of resisting the temptation to respond to every curse, epithet, lie and red herring (what does Article 301 of the Turkish penal code or Kurdish rights have to do with free speech in Springfield, New Jersey?) sputtered by those who want to suppress discussion of anything other than the orthodox Armenian view. By being focused on the issue at hand and directing our efforts toward those who held decision-making authority we succeeded.

The TALDF now calls upon Armenian Americans to end their efforts to stymie candid discussion and open debate. Given that there is honest disagreement among people of good will about the Turkish-Armenian controversy, the shaming of those who hold the contra-genocide viewpoint and the suppression of its teaching must end.

 


   
 
Turkish American Legal Defense Fund - TALDF
1510 H St. NW Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202-370-1399 ext.13, Fax: 202-370-1398