Dismissal of University Free Speech Case Upheld

     MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of first amendment claims against the University of Minnesota by the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA), who claimed the University’s decision to place its website on a list of “unreliable websites” chilled free speech and defamed the non-profit organization.
     TCA’s lawsuit, which also involved Minnesota student Sinan Cingilli, was filed against the University, its president Robert Bruininks and professor Bruno Chaouat, the director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the college.
     The lawsuit took exception to TCA’s website being at the top of a list of “unreliable websites” that was prefaced by this statement: “We do not recommend these sites. Warnings should be given to students writing papers that they should not use these sites because of denial, support by an unknown organization, or contents that are a strange mix of fact and opinion.”
     When Chaouat was approached by Cingilli about using TCA’s website for research, he “‘strongly discouraged’ use of the website and ‘repeatedly refused to deny that there would be academic consequences’ for Cingilli if he did so.”
     Shortly after receiving a letter from the TCA, the University removed its list of “unreliable websites,” replacing it with a list of recommended sources instead, and TCA filed suit a week later, only to have the District Court of Minnesota dismiss the case for “failure to state a claim holding that the doctrine of academic freedom protected the actions of all defendants and that the alleged defamatory statements were solely matters of opinion.”
     The three judge panel of Circuit Judges Gruender, Benton and Shepherd upheld the District Court’s dismissal of Cingilli’s first amendment claims on the basis that, even though he feared retaliation in the form of a lowered grade if he utilized the TCA’s website, “the complaint does not allege that professor Chaouat has any ability whatsoever to influence Cingilli’s academic standing.”
     Cingilli argued that “despite an absence of control over any of Cingilli’s grades, professor Chaouat might be able to affect his academic standing because ‘professors regularly communicate to one another about work-related issues, such as … troublesome students.”
     The panel rejected the claim, however, writing that “even treating this generously as an inference one might draw from the complaint, it is far too speculative to establish an objectively reasonable chilling effect. … There are no factual allegations that professor Chaouat or other professors at the University of Minnesota in fact reach out to lower the grades of ‘troublesome’ students in classes taught by others.”
     The panel likewise rejected TCA’s first amendment claim, refuting all three of the organizations arguments, which were based on three separate Supreme Court cases.
     Among others, TCA cited Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982), a case in which a school board removed numerous books it considered inappropriate from its library shelves.
     The panel rebuffed the argument by explaining that “the key distinction in Pico is that the books were actually removed from the libraries, substantially impairing the students’ ability to access the ideas they contained… There is no allegation that the defendant impaired students’ access to the TCA website on a university-provided internet system. There is no hint in the complaint that university students were not free to, for example, read the TCA website, email material from the TCA website to their friends, regale passers-by on the sidewalk with quotes from the TCA website, and so forth. In short, TCA’s website was not ‘removed’ from the university in any sense.”
     The Eighth Circuit panel also upheld the District Court’s dismissal of TCA’s defamation claim, despite the group’s argument that the University’s statement that the website “engages in ‘denial’ of the Armenian genocide in Turkey during World War I, is ‘unreliable,’ presents a ‘strange mix of fact and opinion’ and is an ‘illegitimate source of information’… imply a charge of scholastic fraud.”
     The University argued that the statements were opinion, cannot be proven true or false and, therefore, are protected from defamation claims.
     The panel agreed, writing that “the statements in context would not suggest to an ordinary listener that the speaker intended to levy specific charges of academic fraud against TCA, Wikipedia, or the other listed websites, not least because websites in general are not ordinarily viewed as scholarly works. This is particularly true of an advocacy website like the TCA website.”

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