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Turkish Coalition of America, Inc.; Sinan Cingilli v. Robert Bruininks

May 3, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gruender, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: February 14, 2012

Before GRUENDER, BENTON, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

Sinan Cingilli, a student at the University of Minnesota, and Turkish Coalition of America, Inc. ("TCA"), a non-profit corporation that provides information about the nation of Turkey and Turkish-Americans, appeal the district court's dismissal of their respective First Amendment claims and TCA's state-law defamation claim for failure to state a claim. We affirm with respect to TCA's First Amendment and defamation claims. With respect to Cingilli's First Amendment claim, we vacate and remand for dismissal due to lack of standing.

I. Background

Defendant Professor Bruno Chaouat directs the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies ("Center") at the University of Minnesota. Prior to November 2010, the Center's website displayed a list of "Unreliable Websites." The preface to the list stated:

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. We also do not advise using sites with excessive advertising.

The "Unreliable Websites" list included websites disputing the factuality of the Nazi genocide of Jews during World War II and the Turkish genocide of Armenians during World War I. It mentioned no websites relating to other genocides, although it listed general internet reference sources such as Wikipedia and The first "Unreliable Website" on the list was that of TCA. In late 2008 or early 2009, TCA sent a letter to the university alleging that the inclusion of TCA's website, coupled with the warning to students, violated the First Amendment. The university responded in August 2009 that the listing was merely the Center's opinion and that students remained free to access the TCA website.

According to the Complaint, on November 5, 2010, Cingilli, then a freshman at the university, sought out Professor Chaouat and asked about using the TCA website "in conjunction with a research paper." Professor Chaouat "strongly discouraged" such use of the website and "repeatedly refused to deny that there would be academic consequences" for Cingilli if he did so. Cingilli was "afraid to use" the TCA website after this exchange. Notably, however, the Complaint does not suggest that Cingilli was enrolled in a class with Professor Chaouat or that the professor was otherwise in a position to affect Cingilli's grades or academic standing.

Following Cingilli's meeting with Professor Chaouat, TCA sent a demand letter to the university with a draft complaint attached. On November 18, 2010, the Center revised its website, removing the list of unreliable websites and offering "recommended" resources instead. The university sent a letter to TCA denying that the change was motivated by the demand letter and denying any wrongdoing. The letter also stated that the university would "not permit any kind of retaliation" against Cingilli and that all students "are evaluated based upon the quality of their academic work." Articles about the dispute appeared in two newspapers, and on November 24, Professor Chaouat posted a "Response to 'Unreliable Websites'" on the Center's website. The response stated that the "Unreliable Websites" list was removed because Professor Chaouat did not want to "promote, even negatively, sources of illegitimate information."

A week later, TCA and Cingilli filed this suit alleging various constitutional claims and state-law defamation against the university, its president Robert Bruininks, and Professor Chaouat. The district court dismissed all claims for failure to state a *fn1 claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), 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 district court also stated that "it does not appear" that the requirements of Article III standing were satisfied, although it did not analyze the issue. TCA and Cingilli appeal only the dismissal of the First Amendment and defamation claims.

II. Standing

The district court erred in assuming without deciding that the requirements of standing were met, because "standing is a jurisdictional prerequisite that must be resolved before reaching the merits of a suit." City of Clarkson Valley v. Mineta, 495 F.3d 567, 569 (8th Cir. 2007). In addressing standing, "the court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw all inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Young Am. Corp. v. Affiliated Computer Servs. (ACS), Inc., 424 F.3d 840, 843 (8th Cir. 2005). Standing requires (1) an injury that is "concrete and particularized" and "actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical," (2) that the injury "be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant," and (3) that it is "likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will ...

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