Harvey A. Silverglate and Norman S. Zalkind: Censoring Turkish History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Harvey A. Silverglate is of counsel to the law firm of Good & Cormier. Norman S. Zalkind is a member of Zalkind, Rodriguez, Lunt & Duncan.]

A FEDERAL lawsuit we recently filed seeks to reaffirm a guiding American legal principle endangered by the ''culture wars," namely the right to an unrestrained mind, free of censorship and state orthodoxies.

Centered broadly on competing historical interpretations of a century-old conflict but, more precisely, on technical evaluations of a recently enacted Massachusetts statute, our lawsuit challenges the Massachusetts Department of Education's attempt to stamp its imprimatur on a single view of history, to the exclusion of all others, on the minds of our high school students.

The plaintiffs are two public school teachers, a high school senior, and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. Though from different backgrounds and points of view, all the plaintiffs and lawyers in this constitutional test case share the conviction that the government should not establish politically approved beliefs on contentious historical disputes and then censor competing positions in state curricular guides.

The historical dispute involves interpreting what happened to the Armenian population of eastern Anatolia during and after World War I in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Though historians have documented death and deportation of large numbers of Armenians (as well as the deaths of many Turks), they disagree over whether what happened constitutes ''genocide," a term defined by international law as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group. While many historians argue that it was the intent of the Turks to exterminate the Armenians as a people, others counter that such intent has not been firmly established and that the events more closely resemble a civil war than a genocidal campaign.

The legislative seed curtailing debate on this historical question was planted more than six years ago. In March 1999, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a statute that required the construction of a curricular materials guide ''on genocide and human rights issues" for use in public schools. The guide itself states that it should provide ''differing points of view on controversial issues." However, when it came time to implement the law, the Department of Education, after initially including materials on both sides of the ''Armenian Genocide" controversy, eliminated all materials arguing against the genocide classification.

This censorship of previously included materials occurred after the department was lobbied by a state senator and others who claimed that any thesis calling the label genocide into question was ''racist" or "hate speech." ...

comments powered by Disqus