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Racist Yerevan Teacher Won’t Be Fired Because ‘He Has a Right to Free Speech’

Employees of Armenian educational institutions can make any, including racist statements, as long as it is not done in school, a spokesperson for Armenia’s Ministry of Education and Science insisted in a conversation with Epress.am, citing the teachers’ right to exercise their freedom of expression and opinion. However, experience shows that the above-mentioned claim does not apply to all teachers, many of whom have been dismissed from their job for expressing their anti-government views out of school premises.

Levon Stepanyan, a chess teacher in Yerevan’s N52 school after H. Hovhannisyan, made racist comments on his personal Facebook page several days ago, prompting writer and publicist Liza Chagharyan to organize a petition calling for Stepanyan’s dismissal from the education system. “This mas has no right to engage in pedagogy and maim the souls of our children,” Chagharyan wrote.

The teacher then deleted his first comment against interracial marriages, but he quickly followed it with another not less offensive one: “What I’m going to say may sound mean, but it is the reality, and please don’t go preaching political correctness to me. Nature and history have already proven that negroes are generally good at three things: singing, dancing, and playing sports. This has a simple explanation: negroes live by instincts; they have well-developed body language, which cannot be said about their mental abilities. This is all they are worthy of… Do not try to convince me to look normally at an interracial marriage between an Armenian and a negroe [sic].”

Stepanyan’s comments were directed at a family photo of an Armenian woman with her black husband published on Facebook by the Marashlyan photo atelier. The teacher was not the only one to condemn the intermarriage; many users also expressed their hatred and disgust for the photo, going so far as to threaten the family.

Speaking to Epress.am, Narine Sharyan, the school’s headmaster, said she had no intention of reprimanding or firing the teacher. “The man presented valid arguments that interracial marriages can contribute directly to the extinction of a species. He did not urge others to kill or burn a certain race; he only cited a number of scientific works to stress that intermarriages are wrong,” Sharyan insisted.

A spokesperson for Armenia’s Ministry of Education and Science, on her part, claimed that the teacher had exercised his right to freedom of expression and did not deserve to be condemned over his statements since “he has made them on a different platform and not on the premises of the school.”

Hovhannes Galajyan, the editor-in-chief of Iravunk newspaper who has been taken to court on a number of occasions over allegations of spreading hate speech, also took to Facebook to stand up for the chess teacher, insisting that “people have a legal right to free speech.”

Lawyer Ara Ghazaryan, in turn, said in an interview for Epress.am that while freedom of expression is a very broad concept, however, “it does not imply dissemination and promotion of racism and intolerance.”

“As a member of the Council of Europe, Armenia has a positive obligation to investigate such cases. This is especially so if the issue concerns a representative of the education system. No parent would wish for such a teacher for their kids,” Ghazaryan said, adding that while in some countries, racist statements are legally punishable, the corresponding article in the Armenian criminal code (Article 226 – advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred) “is quite weak, and there is no culture of initiating criminal cases on it.”

Note, in the past, teachers who exercised their freedom of expression to voice anti-government opinions were not so lucky to escape responsibility. Teacher Karpis Pashoyan, namely, was dismissed from his job at N145 school for, as he insisted, actively expressing his political views and fighting against electoral fraud. Pashoyan served as an independent observer during the 2015 referendum on constitutional reforms and expressed his open support for those opposing the amendments on his personal Facebook page. The official reason for the teacher’s dismissal, however, was his alleged tardiness to classes.

In 2013, another chess teacher, Narek Varazdatyan, was fired from the N8 school after Al. Pushkin. Speaking to Epress.am, Varazdatyan also linked his dismissal to a political statement he had made on Facebook. “I had written that for me Raffi Hovhannisyan was the fourth president of Armenia, and that Serzh Sargsyan’s decisions were not legitimate to me. [I am convinced that the school administration] found this to be basis for firing me,” Varazdatyan said.