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Upholding Academic Freedom in Minnesota

A recently-decided case involving academic freedom all but defines a frivolous lawsuit. The website for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS), based at the University of Minnesota, contained an item noting “unreliable websites” on Holocaust issues. The link’s purpose–to discourage students from using these sites in their research–was clearly academic. (The site’s wording: “We do not recommend these sites. Warnings should be given to students writing papers that they should not use these sites because of denial, support by an unknown organization, or contents that are a strange mix of fact and opinion.”) The list of unreliable sites included that of the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), whose offering denied the existence of an Armenian genocide.

In early 2009, the TCA’s parent body then sent a letter to the university, claiming (absurdly) that the list constituted “viewpoint discrimination that flagrantly violates the First Amendment.” Nonetheless, in November 2010, the CHGS changed its website, and replaced the link to “unreliable websites” with a summary of a few books on the “history, psychology and ideology of Holocaust and genocide denial.” The CHGS coupled this decision with a public statement (correctly) noting that “the vast majority of serious and rigorous historians . . . consider the massacre of Armenians during World War I as a case of genocide.”

Despite obtaining what it (ostensibly) wanted–the removal of its website from a CHGS link to “unreliable websites”–the TCA filed suit on November 30. On March 30, District Court judge Donovan Frank dismissed the lawsuit. Frank concluded “that this case is properly viewed in the context of academic freedom,[which, quoting Justice Brennan, he termed “a special concern of the First Amendment”] and that Defendants’ statements are protected by that freedom. The CHGS is free to indicate to students that it thinks certain websites are not proper sources for scholarly research. The ability of the University and its faculty to determine the reliability of sources available to students to use in their research falls squarely within the University’s freedom to determine how particular coursework shall be taught.” (The opinion is available through Pacer here.)

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