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Censoring history

A FEDERAL lawsuit we recently filed seeks to reaffirm a guiding American legal principle endangered by the ''culture wars," namely the right to an unrestrained mind, free of censorship and state orthodoxies.

Centered broadly on competing historical interpretations of a century-old conflict but, more precisely, on technical evaluations of a recently enacted Massachusetts statute, our lawsuit challenges the Massachusetts Department of Education's attempt to stamp its imprimatur on a single view of history, to the exclusion of all others, on the minds of our high school students.

The plaintiffs are two public school teachers, a high school senior, and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. Though from different backgrounds and points of view, all the plaintiffs and lawyers in this constitutional test case share the conviction that the government should not establish politically approved beliefs on contentious historical disputes and then censor competing positions in state curricular guides.

The historical dispute involves interpreting what happened to the Armenian population of eastern Anatolia during and after World War I in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Though historians have documented death and deportation of large numbers of Armenians (as well as the deaths of many Turks), they disagree over whether what happened constitutes ''genocide," a term defined by international law as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group. While many historians argue that it was the intent of the Turks to exterminate the Armenians as a people, others counter that such intent has not been firmly established and that the events more closely resemble a civil war than a genocidal campaign.

The legislative seed curtailing debate on this historical question was planted more than six years ago. In March 1999, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a statute that required the construction of a curricular materials guide ''on genocide and human rights issues" for use in public schools. The guide itself states that it should provide ''differing points of view on controversial issues." However, when it came time to implement the law, the Department of Education, after initially including materials on both sides of the ''Armenian Genocide" controversy, eliminated all materials arguing against the genocide classification.

This censorship of previously included materials occurred after the department was lobbied by a state senator and others who claimed that any thesis calling the label genocide into question was ''racist" or ''hate speech." Commissioner David Driscoll and Board of Education Chairman James E. Peyser consequently wrote on Aug. 31, 1999, that ''the legislative intent of the statute was to address the Armenian genocide and not to debate whether or not this occurred." Driscoll and Peyser thus made an inherently political decision that reversed the educational judgment of those who thought both sides worthy of being aired. Any time political interference results in censorship of educationally suitable materials, our students lose.

Censorship of materials previously included recalls a 1982 legal tussle arising in the Island Trees Union Free School District in New York State, in which a local school board, under pressure from what the Supreme Court termed ''a politically conservative organization of parents," removed from the school library books deemed ''anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." The court ordered the books reinstated ''because we are concerned in this case with the suppression of ideas."

The debate over whether ''Armenian Genocide" is a historically accurate designation or an exaggerated and politicized claim has followed the battle lines that mark today's political and cultural landscape. The culture wars are about not only seeing one's beliefs triumph but also depriving competing views of access to the marketplace of ideas. Special-interest groups intolerant of dissent enlist government to endow their side with unimpeachable credibility. On a variety of issues -- from abortion to stem cell research, evolution and ''intelligent design" to pornography, the flag pledge to war protest -- the benefits of useful and civil public and academic discussion seem to have been buried under decades of rancor.

It is against this backdrop of a culture eager to censor that our lawsuit attempts to reaffirm a quintessential American value. As Massachusetts native and US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated in 1929, ''[t]he principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate," is arguably the most imperative principle in the US Constitution.

Harvey A. Silverglate is of counsel to the law firm of Good & Cormier. Norman S. Zalkind is a member of Zalkind, Rodriguez, Lunt & Duncan.

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