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.)
Judge Frank’s ruling is clearly correct; the TCA’s claims lacked merit. Quite apart from the issue of academic freedom, describing a website as “unreliable” doesn’t constitute “viewpoint discrimination”—it constitutes an opinion. The TCA claimed that students who wanted to use their website in research might be punished for doing so, but I can’t think of a more clear-cut job for faculty members than in guiding students as to what are reliable and unreliable sources (especially on the internet).
As anyone who follows academic affairs could have anticipated, the case attracted the interest of the Middle East Studies Association, whose basic mantra amounts to defining academic freedom as shielding from outside criticism anything its (generally anti-Israel) members say, teach, or write. MESA rang in with a defense of the University of Minnesota, urging the TCA to withdraw its suit and conduct itself “in a manner that conforms to the standards and procedures adhered to by scholars and academic institutions and that respects their academic freedom.”
Perhaps because the case was so lacking in merit, Judge Frank (a Clinton appointee to the bench) did not engage with the question of whether (as groups such as MESA so desperately desire) academic freedom should shield professors from virtually all outside legal scrutiny. The tone of his ruling suggested some sympathy with such an extreme view, but the filing’s actual wording did not go that far.