Turkish group sues U for ‘unreliable’ website list

The group sued despite the University’s removal of the “unreliable” label from a department’s site.
December 01, 2010

The University of Minnesota faces a federal lawsuit after displaying on one of its websites a list of sources deemed "unreliable."

Until Nov. 18, the list of sources, designated "unreliable" because of their views on the Armenian Genocide, could be found on the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Web page. The Turkish Coalition of America was the first site on the list.

The Turkish government denies that the killing of Armenians in eastern Turkey that began in 1915 should be classified as genocide. About 20 countries worldwide recognize the killings as genocide.

At 1 p.m., Tuesday, TCA, in conjunction with University first year Sinan Cingilli, filed a suit against the University, President Bob Bruininks and CHGS director Bruno Chaouat.

This lawsuit contains seven charges, each relating to freedom of speech, due process or defamation.

There are multiple counts of due process violations in the complaint, with the plaintiffs’ arguing they did not know how or why they were placed on the list.

An additional defamation charge was added in response to a letter Chaouat published Monday on the CHGS website defending the school and the center.

University general counsel Mark Rotenberg said these charges have no merit, and the defendants will seek to have them dismissed.

The TCA first sent a letter to the University almost a year ago asking it to take the list down, but the University refused, according to local counsel for the plaintiff, Larry Frost.

This fall, Frost was tasked by Bruce Fein, attorney for the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund, to begin working on a complaint against the University for a potential federal lawsuit.

When a copy of that complaint was sent to Bruininks, the list was taken down. Chaouat claimed he had intended to take it down prior to receiving the letter.

Rotenberg said last week the list was taken down for academic reasons, not legal ones.

"As a legal matter we didn’t find anything defamatory or inconsistent with academic freedom in that little box," he said. "There was no restriction on free speech."

Cingilli and the TCA weren’t satisfied with that response and decided to file the claim anyway.

Rotenberg said he was "perplexed" as to why the plaintiffs were still pursuing a court challenge when the information had been removed from the website as they desired.

"This organization is trying to convert an academic, political and historical debate into a lawsuit," he said, "and that’s not right."

After refusing to speak to reporters, Chaouat published a letter on the CHGS website homepage responding to the allegations.

The letter repeated Chaouat’s intention to remove the list before the lawsuit was threatened. This, along with Chaouat’s claim of being intimidated by the potential lawsuit, led to an additional defamation claim by the plaintiffs.

"Intimidation by filing a lawsuit might be believable if we were a great big corporation and he was a little guy somewhere, but the fact is that [Chaouat represents] a major state university," Frost said. "As a matter of law, you can’t be charged with intimidation for filing a lawsuit; that’s everybody’s legal right."

The letter also called the websites originally on the "unreliable" list "sources of illegitimate information."

"We take academic freedom and free speech very seriously here on the campus," Rotenberg said, "and the faculty and the University have a right to voice their opinions on the reliability of source materials that are found on the Internet."

Chaouat became director in July 2010, so he could not have been the one to approve the list’s original placement. Both parties in the suit are uncertain who generated the list.

Cingilli said the list offended him even before he came to the University. So when Fein was looking for a student to join the suit, he was eager to get involved.

Cingilli, who is originally from Turkey, said his heritage did not affect his position and passion in this case.

"The point of the case is to remove obstacles to free, critical thinking," he said.

The original warning above the list said, "Students should not use these sites because of [1] denial, [2] support by an unknown organization, or [3] contents that are a strange mixture of fact and opinion."

This viewpoint, according to the complaint filed Tuesday, could also be given to any respectable newspaper, such as the New York Times.

The plaintiffs took particular issue with the portion marking their website as "a strange mixture of fact and opinion" because of its view on the alleged Armenian genocide, a conflict the organization calls the "Armenian Revolt."

Estimates of the number of Armenians who died during the early 20th century conflict and deportations vary dramatically. Some Turkish sources have claimed as few as 200,000 Armenians were killed, while Armenian sources have raised that number to as high as 2 million.

"The University’s rules and regulations specify the right to research and write from any source," Frost said, "and blacklisting sources does not comport well with that."

Fein has also speculated that the center’s donors influenced its decision to post the list, as they are financed by some local Armenian organizations.

In his letter, Chaouat denied these speculations saying, "To insinuate that the mission of CHGS is somehow influenced and biased by donors’ money is incorrect."

The plaintiffs’ complaint does not request any specific amount in monetary reward. Instead, it asks for whatever the judge deems appropriate, since it is difficult to legally prove the amount that has been suffered, Frost said.

"When we originally offered to settle with the University, we offered to drop everything, including the defamation," he said. "That is objective proof that we are not in this for the money."

The University has 20 days to respond to the complaint. Until then it is unclear how the process will proceed, but according to Frost the average federal court case takes 18 months to move from complaint to trial.

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