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Mass. Sued for Citing Armenian 'Genocide' by Turks


Two Boston-area teachers and a high school senior are suing the Massachusetts Department of Education, accusing it of censorship and political interference in the classroom. The suit is prompted by a long-simmering debate about the ghastly events that befell hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. At the core of this case are these questions: What is historical truth? And: Who decides how it's taught? NPR's Anthony Brooks reports.


There's little debate that starting in 1915 the Turks began to deport hundreds of thousands of Armenians. Men, women and children were forced into the desert, where many died of starvation and disease while many others were murdered. Many people know this as the Armenian genocide, which claimed the lives of perhaps a million and a half people. But to this day, Turkey claims the deaths were caused by ethnic conflict and war, not genocide. And this sparks an emotional debate.

State Senator STEVEN TOLMAN (Democrat, Massachusetts): It's outrageous to say that there is another side. The history is what it is. It is genocide.

BROOKS: State Senator Steven Tolman is a Democrat who grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, home to one of the country's largest Armenian-American communities.

State Sen. TOLMAN: I got it right here.

BROOKS: Tolman shuffles through a file of papers until he finds what he's looking for, the text of a dispatch from America's ambassador to Turkey in 1915.

State Sen. TOLMAN: `It appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under the pretext of reprisal against rebellion.' This is from our own eyes, the top government official from America in 1915.

BROOKS: In 1998, Tolman sponsored a law that required the Department of Education to establish guidelines for a high school curriculum on human rights and genocide. Among the subjects to be taught, the Holocaust, the Irish potato famine and the Armenian genocide. The Ed. Department's guidelines offer information and links to scholarship about the Armenian tragedy. At first, they included material from a few scholars and Turkish groups who argue that what happened to the Armenians may have been tragic but it was not a planned genocide. But State Senator Tolman protested and forced state education officials to remove the dissenting material from the guidelines.

Mr. HARVEY SILVERGLADE (Civil Liberties Attorney): This history should be taught to our children. And that's what this law was about. So to say that it didn't occur is just inappropriate. You can't say it didn't occur. This is a case involving political interference with academic questions.

BROOKS: That's Harvey Silverglade, a civil liberties attorney who filed suit in federal court in Boston, accusing the state Department of Education of censorship. Silverglade says it's wrong for legislators to insist on a particular point of view in the classroom.

Mr. SILVERGLADE: It's fine for them to say, `You've got to teach these kids about genocide.' It is not fine to say, `Oh, by the way, because I have a lot of Armenians in my district, you'd better not include any materials that question whether or not the slaughter of the Armenians constituted a genocide.'

BROOKS: Silverglade filed suit on behalf of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. The group provided some of the materials that challenge the case for genocide, which were removed from the curriculum guidelines. The plaintiffs also include Bill Schechter, a history teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury High School outside of Boston, and one of his students, 17-year-old Todd Griswold(ph).

TODD GRISWOLD (Student): There are two sides to the history. There's the debate going on. And we shouldn't deny that. We should show both sides in the schools and allow Americans to make up their own mind.

Mr. BILL SCHECHTER (History Teacher): And what's at stake here is academic freedom, ultimately.

BROOKS: History teacher and plaintiff Bill Schechter.

Mr. SCHECHTER: Freedom of thought, freedom of speech, the ability of students to get different points of view.

BROOKS: But Anthony Barsamian, chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, says what's at stake here is the truth. He says it's wrong to include curriculum materials that deny the reality of the Armenian genocide just as it would be wrong to use neo-Nazi materials to teach about the Jewish Holocaust.

Mr. ANTHONY BARSAMIAN (Chairman, Armenian Assembly of America): The record is very, very clear. The Armenian genocide has been clearly documented. Holocaust scholars have come out clearly on this issue and I think it would not be in the best interest of students to have materials that contradict what happened in history.

BROOKS: Many Holocaust scholars agree with that but a small number of respected historians argue that the Armenian tragedy does not meet the definition of genocide, the premeditated annihilation of a national or ethnic group. The UN doesn't have a position on the question and the US government, which counts Turkey as a close ally, doesn't refer to the events as genocide. History teacher and plaintiff Bill Schechter says he doesn't have a position except that credible historians disagree, and that scholarship and debate should determine historic truth, not the government.

Mr. SCHECHTER: This is exactly what we found frightening about the Soviet Union, where kids were required to learn an official version of history. Schools and teachers have to be in the business of education, not indoctrination.

BROOKS: The lawsuit demands that the Department of Education put the dissenting materials back in the curriculum guide. Armenian-Americans say that would be a mistake but some of them welcome the court challenge as an opportunity to remind Americans of how so many of their ancestors suffered 90 years ago. Anthony Brooks, NPR News, Boston.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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