Court rules in favor of U of M's academic freedom claim

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that a University of Minnesota academic department had the right to list the Turkish Council of America's website as a source of unreliable information on the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th Century.

The council had sued the university, alleging that the university defamed the organization and violated its right to free speech. The stand of the Turkish council mirrors the official government line of Turkey, denying that the systematic killings of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I constituted genocide.

University of Minnesota General Counsel Mark Rotenberg spoke about the court's decision with Steven John of All Things Considered on Friday.

An edited transcript of that discussion is below.

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Mark Rotenberg: Yesterday's court ruling simply upheld the opportunity and the right of our faculty at the U of M to offer an opinion about the historical events involving the death of many hundreds of thousands of Armenians prior to and during World War One. Our faculty offered those opinions on a website in our Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies within the College of Liberal Arts.

Steven John: I'm sure a lot of universities across the county have been watching this case. What do you think will be the ultimate result?

Rotenberg: We know that a lot of universities have been following this, many publications have reported on this, including international publications in Europe where the issue of the Armenian genocide is front and center in many people's minds.

When you have a ruling at this level from a federal appeals court, that enhances and affirms academic freedom for the faculty of the university to express its viewpoints online. You enhance the quality of debate and you enlarge the opportunities for students and the public to know what our faculty thinks, and I think that's all to the good.

John: It appears that the University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has taken the list down from its website, why did that happen?

Rotenberg: The director of the center eventually chose to take the list of unreliable sources down because he decided he did not want to give more publicity to the unreliable sources. He did not take it down for any legal reason, there's no court order, the lawyers here for the university didn't advise him to take it down. I know he just felt that he didn't want to give any more publicity to the sources that the center found to be unreliable.

John: Do you think this is a problem that's grown out from the proliferation of information available in the age of the Internet?

Rotenberg: I think it's partly that. This case probably wouldn't have even come to court if it had just been a faculty member in a classroom in front of 20 students saying she thought this book was shoddy scholarship, or that [a] monograph or article was not credible. Faculty members do that all the time. They've been doing that since Plato and Socrates taught in Greece thousands of years ago.

I think the difference, as your question points out, is that nowadays when faculty offer their critique of some other viewpoint, it goes to entire world potentially. And some people, like the Turkish coalition here, took some offense at that.

Interview transcribed and edited by Jon Collins, MPR reporter.