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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 12, 2010
In a closely watched case, a federal appeals court yesterday ruled that statewide public school guidelines on teaching human rights history can exclude materials disputing that the mass slaying of Armenians in the First World War era constituted genocide.
The decision, written by retired Supreme Court justice David Souter, who occasionally hears cases with the First Circuit Court of Appeals, found that state education officials did not violate public school students' free speech rights in 1999, when they excluded all "contra-genocide'' sources calling the Armenian genocide into question.
Van Z. Krikorian, a professor at Pace University Law School who filed a brief defending the state's move, said he was thrilled by the ruling, equating those who dispute the genocide designation to Holocaust deniers.
"It would have put human rights education in reverse,'' he said. "It's a major defeat for genocide denial.''
Upholding a lower-court decision, the court ruled that although state guidelines were advisory, and "not meant to declare other positions out of bounds in study and discussion,'' they were part of the official curriculum and therefore under the discretion of state authorities.
Requiring that officials include references to dissenting viewpoints, Souter wrote, "might actually have the effect of foreclosing future opportunities for open enquiry in the classroom.''
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston civil rights lawyer representing the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, had argued that removing the references amounted to government censorship and prevented students from hearing both sides.
"It always is a sad day when a court constricts First Amendment rights rather than expand them,'' he said. "I think they made a mistake.'' Silverglate said his clients will consider whether to appeal.
The Turkish-American group disputes that the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Christian Armenian minority population. Over 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of Turkish forces, but Turkish activists maintain 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, and a draft of the guide initially included a section on the "Armenian Genocide.'' Under pressure from Turkish advocacy groups, the commissioner of education, David P. Driscoll, revised the draft to include references to opposing views, said the ruling.
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 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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