Massachusetts Co-Plaintiffs Flunk Turkish Lawsuit

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By David Boyajian

Groundless. That’s a good description of the claims the Turkish and non-Turkish plaintiffs make in their Federal lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Education (MDOE). They contend their “freedom of speech” was violated when, back in 1999, the MDOE rebuffed Turkish attempts to insert denial of the Armenian Genocide into the state’s genocide curriculum guide.

The main plaintiff is the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA), which initiated and collected funds for the litigation. That it was filed in Federal, instead of State, court suggests the suit’s long-range target is nationwide Armenian Genocide curricula.

Lacking a case against the MDOE from the outset, the Turks apparently hunted for a lawyer who could dream one up. Enter Harvey Silverglate. The talented, high profile Massachusetts attorney obligingly patched together a fanciful “freedom of speech” case for the ATAA, despite the fact that, as Massachusetts Atty. General Thomas Reilly has pointed out, no one’s freedoms were violated.

To provide legal cover for the Turks, Silverglate dragged along three local Jewish Americans as co-plaintiffs: public high school teachers Larry Aaronson and Bill Schechter, and the latter’s student, Ted Griswold.

Contents

Groundless Lawsuit

It’s hard to believe that Genocide deniers who venerate a repressive country like Turkey even understand the Western concept of free speech.

In any case, the Turks’ claim that “politicians and [Armenian American] lobby groups” violated their “constitutional rights” when the MDOE removed denialist material from the draft guide defies the facts.

In conformance with a 1998 state law (Chapter 276) that used the term “Armenian genocide,” the guide originally contained no Genocide denialism.

Then, in 1999, behind closed doors, a Turkish group insisted the MDOE insert Genocide denial material. Whether due to covert political pressure exerted on the Turks’ behalf, or to misguided decisions, the MDOE caved in to Turkish demands.

Shortly thereafter, Armenian Americans and the law’s author, Senator Steven Tolman, reminded the MDOE that denialist material violated the language and intent of the legislation.

In the end, the Turkish material was excluded. Turks had their say – and lost. Indeed, if any party deserves to be sued, it is those Turks who tried to sabotage the clearly worded 1998 law.

Neither were Aaronson’s and Schechter’s freedom of speech violated. Use of the genocide guide by Massachusetts school districts is, after all, completely optional. Moreover, even teachers who use the guide are free to tell students about genocide denial. Indeed, Schechter does teach Turkish denialism.

Un-Balanced

Plaintiff Schechter is an energetic history teacher. He insists that the genocide guide be “balanced” with Turkish denials and “both points of view.” A multitude of essays and scholastic material on his website (schechsplace.tripod.com) suggest, however, that Schechter himself tends to teach an un-balanced version of history and politics: liberal or left-of-center. (Plaintiff Aaronson did not reply to my emails, but his views appear to parallel Schechter’s).

Schechter’s school projects and activities lean toward such things as “New Left vs. Old Left,” the Vietnam anti-war movement, “the Pentagon Papers,” “anti-military recruiting,” “Poverty Unit field trips,” advising the “Students Against Apartheid,” and anti-establishment/radical poets such as Allen Ginsberg. There is much less on conservative issues such as free enterprise, law and order, and illegal immigration.

Schechter boasts that his school, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High, is “progressive.” He says he is “an old 1960’s activist” who married “a radical journalist.” He is proud that his brother Danny, a well-known, left-of-center film producer, is an “agitator for justice.”

A Boston Globe photo [October 28, 2005] shows Schechter’s classroom plastered with posters. Except for a rock band, the discernable posters are for the Mexican “Revolucion,” college anti-war strikes, Vietnam, and one reading “Hitler Dead.” That seems a bit lopsided, not “balanced.”

And let me guess: Schechter probably supports the separation of church and state and deplores religion in public schools. Yet, curiously, a verse from the Talmud, the Hebrew holy book, graces his classroom wall.

Let’s be clear: Schechter’s political views are totally legitimate, and we are not criticizing them. He cannot credibly argue, however, that the MDOE guidelines should be “balanced” with Armenian Genocide denial while he himself teaches a rather un-balanced political perspective.

Schechter has written publicly and passionately about his family’s ordeals in the Holocaust[1]. For one of his annual Holocaust remembrances at school, he taped six million zeroes - 1000 feet long - on the corridor walls. For another, barbed wire and a heap of old shoes, as in a concentration camp, greeted the students. Commemorating the Holocaust is proper and admirable. But does Schechter’s approach seem a bit - shall we say - overzealous for someone suing to “balance” a Genocide curriculum with Turkish denials?

Interestingly, Schechter tells me that he (and, apparently, Aaronson and Griswold) have never spoken to their Turkish co-plaintiffs. Was Silverglate worried that these idealistic Massachusetts liberals might quit the suit if he ever brought them face to face with the harsh reality of their illiberal, Genocide-denying Turkish allies?

Social Justice?

Plaintiff Ted Griswold is a bright high school senior, athlete, musician, and founder of his school’s ACLU chapter (Schechter is its advisor). Incredibly, though he claims to be a victim of “censorship” whose freedom of speech was violated, Griswold concedes he hasn’t even taken his school’s genocide course.

Griswold acknowledges that Schechter brought him into the lawsuit. Is steering students into controversial Federal litigation now part of a public school teacher’s job description?

I had also suspected that Griswold would mention the suit on his college applications. Sure enough, he told me he did. “Involvement with the lawsuit,” he added, “has been an accomplishment.” That raises a question about his real reasons for joining the suit. But maybe I’m being unfair. After all, the student and two teachers have stated they always “fight” for “social justice.”

Questions

But seriously, Aaronson, Griswold, and Schechter all appear to be very decent people, with no prior interest or stake in Armenian Genocide denial. Then along came attorney Silverglate. Did he dangle his high-sounding “freedom of speech” bait in front of these idealistic liberals solely for the benefit of his paying Turkish clients? One wonders.

At the same time, the Massachusetts plaintiffs have apparently been basking in the glow of the national media. But would they even be in this suit if they had to pay their own way? Again, one wonders.

Regardless of the case’s outcome, let’s be grateful to the plaintiffs and Silverglate for generating the sort of high profile media coverage that the Genocide would not otherwise have received.




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