High court declines case on genocide lessons

Armenian groups applaud decision

By David Abel
Globe Staff / January 21, 2011

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The US Supreme Court declined yesterday to hear an appeal of a ruling that state public school guidelines can exclude materials disputing that the mass killing of Armenians in the early 20th century constituted genocide.

The decision to reject the appeal was seen as a victory for Armenian groups who successfully argued before the First Circuit Court of Appeals that Massachusetts education officials did not violate public school students’ free speech rights in 1999 when they excluded sources that questioned the Armenian genocide.

“I think the Supreme Court’s decision has upheld the integrity of our public schools by rejecting Turkish attempts to force genocide-denial materials into the curriculum,’’ said Laura Boghosian, a member of the Boston-based Coalition to Recognize the Armenian Genocide. “This decision actually gives school officials the right to decide what materials belong in the curriculum.

“The Turkish suit tried to force politicized material into the curriculum. That would have set a very dangerous precedent. Had they won, I think we could see Holocaust deniers demanding their propaganda into our schools’ curriculum.’’

The appeals court decision, written last summer by retired Supreme Court justice David Souter, found that state guidelines were part of the official curriculum and under the discretion of state authorities.

Harvey Silverglate, a Boston lawyer who represented teachers and students from schools in Sudbury and Cambridge, as well as the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, had argued that removing the references prevented students from learning more than one view.

“I was very disappointed, because this is a major issue in First Amendment law that has gone unresolved for quite a few years,’’ he said. “We were hoping that this was the case that would enable the courts to clarify the role of the First Amendment in protecting public libraries from censorship by public officials and pressure groups.’’

The Turkish-American group says the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire did not commit genocide. Although more than 1.5 million Armenians died as the result of actions by Turkish forces, Turkish activists say it was not the result of a policy.

In 1998 the Legislature ordered the state Board of Education to prepare an advisory curriculum guide for teaching about genocide and human rights. A draft of the guide initially included a section called “Armenian Genocide.’’ Under pressure from Turkish advocacy groups, the commissioner of education, David P. Driscoll, revised the draft to include references to opposing views, the ruling said.

When officials filed the guide with legislators in March 1999, the state’s Armenian community protested the inclusion of “contra-genocide’’ viewpoints, and the education commissioner removed the references.

Peter Schworm of the Globe Staff contributed to this story. David Abel can be reached at