In appeal, lawyer asserts genocide teaching skewed

Says state pressured by Armenian groups

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / March 3, 2010

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A well-known Boston civil rights lawyer argued yesterday that state educators violated the constitutional rights of Massachusetts public school students and teachers by censoring legitimate arguments disputing that the mass slaying of Armenians in the First World War era was genocide.

Appearing before the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in a closely watched legal challenge, Harvey A. Silverglate contended that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education bowed to pressure from politicians sympathetic to the state’s Armenian community and deleted “contra-genocide’’ views from an advisory curriculum guide in June 1999.

“They were deprived of two sides of the controversy,’’ Silverglate said of students. “It was very irregular.’’

Silverglate is among a team of lawyers representing students and teachers and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, a nonprofit group that disputes that the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Christian Armenian minority population during and immediately after World War I.

But Assistant Attorney General William W. Porter, who represented the state education department, countered that Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf rightly dismissed the suit last June based partly on Wolf’s conclusion that the plaintiffs failed to show that anyone’s free speech rights were violated.

The curriculum guide, Porter argued, was a series of recommendations that school systems could adopt or reject. “It’s purely advisory,’’ he said, and does not even require school districts to include human rights or genocide in lesson plans.

The three justices on the panel, which included retired US Supreme Court Justice David Souter, peppered both sides with questions that tended toward the legalistic but gave little indication how they will rule.

The case revolves around the slaying of up to 1.5 million Armenians, a matter of continuing international debate.

Just Monday, Turkey warned the United States that relations between the two countries would be damaged if a congressional panel votes to label the massacre of Armenians by Turkish forces as genocide.

Turkish activists have long maintained that although Armenians were killed, it was not the result of a deliberate policy but of other factors, including an Armenian revolt in alliance with Russia against the Ottoman Empire.

In 1998, the Massachusetts Legislature ordered the state Board of Education to prepare and distribute to all school districts an advisory curriculum guide for teaching about genocide and human rights, according to Wolf’s ruling.

A draft of the guide originally included a section on the “Armenian Genocide,’’ but a Turkish advocacy group pressured the commissioner of education, David P. Driscoll, to include references to sources that dispute that the massacre reflected a Turkish policy of genocide.

After officials filed the guide with legislators in March 1999, the state’s Armenian community objected to the “contra-genocide’’ viewpoint and complained to then-governor Paul Cellucci and other prominent politicians.

The education commissioner jettisoned the dissenting viewpoint. Six years later, several students and teachers and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations filed suit.

From the beginning of Silverglate’s argument yesterday, Souter focused on the issue that Wolf had bored in on: whether the guide violated any students’ rights.

“I thought the teachers don’t have to use this guide,’’ he said. “So how are the students injured?’’

Silverglate said that educational officials had allowed political concerns to trump research by academics who question the genocide designation, including Bernard Lewis of Princeton University and Guenter Lewy of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In contrast, he said, the guide featured differing interpretations of the Irish potato famine rather than treat the massive starvation in Ireland as, say, a deliberate genocidal act of the British government.

Silverglate, who often takes up controversial causes, has angered many supporters of the genocide label.

Van Z. Krikorian, a professor at Pace University Law School in New York who helped file a brief supporting the designation on behalf of the Armenian Assembly of America Inc., said after the arguments that Silverglate claims to support free speech but really wants to suppress it by banning the use of the term genocide.

“This case was only brought for public relations purposes on behalf of Turkish denialists,’’ he said.

Andrew M. Fischer, the president of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, said those who oppose labeling the massive Armenian slayings as genocide “have no more credibility than Holocaust deniers.’’

Silverglate said in an interview that evidence of the Holocaust was overwhelming, but that there is bona fide dissent about whether the slayings of Armenians was genocide.

“I took this case because I don’t think there are issues you can’t discuss,’’ he said.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at