A well-known Boston civil rights lawyer argued today that state educators violated the constitutional rights of Massachusetts public school students and teachers by censoring legitimate arguments challenging that the mass slaying of Armenians in the First World War era should be classified as genocide.
Appearing before the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in in a closely watched appeal, Harvey A. Silverglate contended that the state Education Department bowed to pressure from politicians such as former state senator Warren E. Tolman, a Watertown Democrat whose districted included many Armenian-Americans, and deleted "contra-genocide" views from an advisory curriculum guide in 1999.
"They were deprived of two sides of the controversy," Silverglate said of public school students. He added, "It was very irregular."
Silverglate is among a team of lawyers representing students and teachers and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, a nonprofit group that disputes that the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its Christian Armenian minority population in the 1890s and World War I
But Assistant Attorney General William W. Porter, who represents the state Education Department, countered that Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf correctly dismissed the suit last June based partly on Wolf's conclusion that the plaintiffs failed to show that their free speech rights were violated.
The curriculum guide, Porter argued, was a series of recommendations that school systems could adopt or reject and did not violate anyone's rights. "It's purely advisory," he said.
The three justices on the panel, which included retired US Supreme Court justice David H. Souter, peppered the lawyers on both sides with questions that tended toward the legalistic but gave no indication how they will rule. A ruling is expected within about eight weeks.
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