Arguing that new state curriculum guidelines on the Armenian genocide deprive students of the complete historical picture, two local teachers and a high school student have signed on as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Education.
The historical account in question is a two-year span during World War I in which anywhere from 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were deported by the Turkish government and killed or allowed to die. While these events are generally accepted as historical fact, the particulars are controversial.
The Turkish government has argued that the deaths were a result of ethnic conflict, disease, and famine caused by the war, and not because of an “intent to destroy...a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group,” which is the United Nations’ definition of genocide.
The Massachusetts curriculum used to include some materials that depicted the events in Armenia as genocide and some that did not characterize it as such. However, the latter documents have been removed from the curriculum.
The lawsuit filed last Wednesday maintains that the Massachusetts Department of Education, and its commissioner, David P. Driscoll, violated students’ First Amendment rights when it removed the materials arguing that the deportations did not constitute genocide.
Officials at the Department of Education could not be reached for comment.
One of the plaintiffs, Lawrence Aaronson, is a history teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. Another plaintiff, William Schechter, teaches at Lincoln-Sudbury High School.
A local civil liberties lawyer, Harvey A. Silverglate, who is representing the plaintiffs in the suit, said he believes both sides should be included in discussions of the historical event.
“The materials were arguing both sides of this historical dispute. Was this a genocide, or was this just simply the same kind of violence that you often see when a central government breaks down?” said Silverglate, who is a member of the Dunster House Senior Common Room.
According to Nargiz Abbaszade, executive director of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations (ATAA), a plaintiff in the suit, the goal of the lawsuit is academic.
“This is purely a First Amendment case,” Abbaszade said in a phone interview yesterday from her office in Washington, D.C. “We didn’t go to court to try to resolve the issue of Armenian history. Our goal is for Turkish-Americans or any scholars who have a position on this issue to be able to express it freely.”
Theodore G. Griswold, another plaintiff who is a senior at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, said it should be the responsibility of historians and students to make their own judgments.
“I don’t think the government has the right to censor a dissenting opinion that will mold what students think of an issue,” Griswold said.
In the spring of 1999, the Massachusetts Department of Education released “The Massachusetts Guide to Choosing and Using Curricular Materials on Genocide and Human Rights Issues.” According to the lawsuit, the Guide “stated that materials related to genocide and human rights issues should provide ‘differing points of view on controversial issues.’”
Under that policy, materials contending that the deaths of Armenians during World War II did not qualify as genocide were originally included in the curriculum. However, the Department of Education removed those documents at the request of State Senator Steven A. Tolman, D-Brighton.
According to Silverglate, Tolman argued that since the Massachusetts legislature had used the phrase “Armenian genocide” in its curriculum guide, it had in effect made a decision that the events did constitute genocide, and any materials questioning that decision should be removed from the curriculum.
Silverglate said the decision “completely deprived the schoolchildren of Massachusetts of one side of the debate.”
“Surely the legislature didn’t intend to say that school authorities were prohibited from distributing anything questioning this decision,” Silvergate said.
“This particular issue...is still being debated by credible historians,” said Griswold. “When you have a historical debate in the private sector, students need to be taught both sides so they can make up their own minds.”