BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
In 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based non-profit civil rights organization, published an article titled, “State of Denial: Turkey Spends Millions to Cover Up Armenian Genocide.” It was a hard-hitting exposé of the Turkish government’s elaborate and sinister efforts to pressure U.S. politicians and entice academics to deny the facts of the Armenian Genocide.
According to the SPLC article, “Turkey exerts political leverage and spends millions of dollars in the United States to obfuscate the Armenian genocide…. Revisionist historians who conjure doubt about the Armenian genocide…are paid by the Turkish government.”
Going beyond such general statements, SPLC specifically referred to Guenter Lewy as “one of the most active members of a network of American scholars, influence peddlers and website operators, financed by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the government of Turkey, who promote the denial of the Armenian genocide….”
Lewy, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, had qualified the Armenian Genocide in his lectures and writings as a “bungling misrule” rather than a deliberately planned and executed mass murder. He had made similar claims in his controversial book published by the University of Utah Press in 2005: “The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide.”
Shortly after publication of SPLC’s article, an $8 million defamation lawsuit was filed against the civil rights group on behalf of Prof. Lewy by attorneys David Saltzman and Bruce Fein from the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund (TALDF), which is “generously supported by the Turkish Coalition of America,” according to TALDF’s website.
Before a jury could judge the merits of the charges in court, however, SPLC agreed to settle the case by issuing “a retraction and apology” and promising to pay an undisclosed sum to Prof. Lewy. Had SPLC not settled the case, TALDF would have had a difficult task proving in court that Prof. Lewy was actually libeled. In order to win the lawsuit, TALDF had to prove that SPLC had made those accusations “with malicious intent” and “reckless disregard for the truth.” Furthermore, TALDF lawyers would have to show that the long-retired 87-year-old professor had suffered actual financial loss, such as getting fired from his job or having a contract canceled as a direct result of the article.
Some SPLC supporters have wondered why it chose to settle the lawsuit when its chances of losing in court were minimal. A knowledgeable source told this writer that SPLC may have settled the case in order to reduce its exposure to mounting attorney fees, combined with the likelihood that Prof. Lewy may have agreed to settle for far less than the $8 million he had originally demanded. With the lawsuit behind it, SPLC could once again dedicate itself to its actual mission of defending civil rights.
In its retraction, SPLC stated: “We now realize that we misunderstood Prof. Lewy’s scholarship, were wrong to assert that he was part of a network financed by the Turkish Government, and were wrong to assume that any scholar who challenges the Armenian genocide narrative necessarily has been financially compromised by the Government of Turkey. We hereby retract the assertion that Prof. Lewy was or is on the Government of Turkey’s payroll…. We deeply regret our errors and offer our sincerest apologies to Professor Lewy.”
In response to complaints from SPLC supporters opposing the settlement, however, Penny Weaver, a public affairs spokesman, stated: “Our settlement of this matter does not mean we are endorsing Mr. Lewy’s views or taking his side. But we are acknowledging that we mischaracterized his views and wrongly said that he was taking money from the Turkish government. It was an error, and we apologize for that.” The original article which precipitated the lawsuit is still posted on the SPLC’s website.
Needless to say, no one should be defamed because of his or her views on the Armenian Genocide, no matter how wrong or offensive they are. Unless one possesses evidence to the contrary, one cannot simply assume that those making distorted statements on the Armenian Genocide are motivated by greed or are paid agents of the Turkish government.
It is both commendable and ironic that lawyers for a Turkish interest group are eager to file a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the United States ostensibly to defend the civil rights of a client. In Turkey, however, anyone who dares to talk about the Armenian Genocide risks being charged for telling the truth and thrown into prison for years under the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which bans “insulting Turkishness!”
If TALDF were truly interested in protecting civil rights, it would allocate its considerable resources to abolish Article 301, which would considerably lessen financial support from generous donors and bring its operations to an end.