Federal appeals court dismisses suit over Armenian genocide curriculum

Federal appeals court dismisses suit over Armenian genocide curriculum

Photo source or description

[JURIST] A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] on Wednesday unanimously dismissed a lawsuit [opinion text] challenging the exclusion of materials questioning the Armenian genocide [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] from a school curriculum. The lawsuit [case materials] was filed in 2005 by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) [advocacy website] after the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education [official website] removed materials from the school curriculum that called into question the circumstances and events of the Armenian genocide. The plaintiffs alleged that this violated their First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] rights because it interfered with their right to “inquire, teach and learn free from viewpoint discrimination.” The US District Court for the District of Massachusetts [official website] dismissed the lawsuit [order text] in 2009, finding that it was time barred and that it was a form of government speech and was therefore “exempt from First Amendment scrutiny.” In upholding that decision, former US Supreme Court justice David Souter, sitting by designation, found that this case could not fall under the precedent set in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico [opinion text], explaining:

[In ruling for the plaintiffs,] [w]e would have to hold that any compliant response to an expression of political opinion critical of a school library’s selection of books would violate a First Amendment right to free enquiry on the part of library patrons[.] … When it comes to judicial supervision of school curriculums, all [precedent] point[s] in the same direction and against extending the Pico plurality’s notion of non-interference with school libraries as a constitutional basis for limiting the discretion of state authorities to set curriculum.

Souter went on to express the concern that adopting the ATAA’s argument in the case would have the effect of “foreclosing future opportunities for open enquiry in the classroom.”

The Armenian genocide remains a contentious issue in US politics and law. In March, the Obama administration announced its opposition to a resolution [JURIST report] labeling the World War I-era killings as genocide. The announcement came after the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs passed the resolution [JURIST report] by a vote of 23-22. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyyip Erdogan condemned the resolution, and the Turkish government recalled its ambassador to the US. In 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled that a California state law that allows descendants of victims of the genocide to sue in state courts [JURIST report] for unpaid insurance benefits is unconstitutional. The court found that it “interfer[ed] with the national government’s conduct of foreign relations” because the federal government has declined to describe the World War I-era killings of over one million Armenians by Turkish soldiers as genocide.