OLYMPIA, Washington (AP) — A former South Vietnamese army lieutenant who fled after the Communist takeover has been awarded $225,000 for defamation after being called a Communist sympathizer, according to The Olympian newspaper.
Turning aside defense warnings of damage to freedom of expression, a Thurston County Superior Court jury on April 16 sided in favor of Duc Tan, 65. It also awarded $85,000 to the Vietnamese Community of Thurston County (VCTC), which he founded to help Vietnamese refugees and promote culture and traditions among the immigrants.
After the verdict, Duc Hua of VCTC said, “I see this as an opportunity for the community to unite. Hopefully, this will prevent other groups from labeling people as communists.”
To side against defendants Norman Le, Phiet Nguyen, Dat Ho, Nga Pham, and Nhan Tran, jurors had to find that they acted in “reckless disregard for the truth.” The defendants made no immediate comment after the verdict.
“Because of the unique cultural and historical factors shaping the lives and opinions of those in the Vietnamese American community, to be labeled a ‘communist’ is an extremely odious charge which cannot help (but) incite scorn, contempt, ridicule, and a lack of trust,” the lawsuit said.
The jury was told Tan received a death threat and that the group’s board had shrunk from 15 members to four. Two witnesses testified they would not join the community group for fear of being labeled a communist.
“I’m glad this is over,” Tan told The Olympian. “I hope this sets a new precedent so that others who might be tempted to wrongfully call someone a communist will think more carefully.”
Accusations that someone is a communist or sympathizer are nothing new in Vietnamese communities, but libel suits have been relatively rare, said Linda Trinh Vo, chairwoman of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Tan fought for the U.S. side in the Vietnam War, and then fled the country in a boat in 1978, three years after the pullout. When the boat capsized, eight others drowned, but Tan dragged his wife and daughter to a fishing vessel that took them to Malaysia. A year later, they found their way to Olympia.
He sued the five Vietnamese Americans after they accused him of Communist sympathies in mass e-mails, public Internet postings, and articles in Vietnamese American media in the area, starting in 2003.
In one incident, Tan was assailed after a musical group he brought to Olympia to honor a Vietnamese poet in 1997 began playing first few bars of the current Vietnamese national anthem. The jury was told that the guitarist said it was unintentional and that the community group called a news conference and apologized.
An accusation that Tan would not display the old (non-Communist) South Vietnamese flag at the Vietnamese-language school where he taught turned out to be false, and “there is absolutely no doubt that they know it’s false,” said
Tan’s lawyer, Gregory M. Rhodes, who explained that several defendants attended a meeting in which Tan said he would display the flag.
A notice issued by the defendants concluded with a call to boycott the community group and the language school where Tan taught “so they would not have any ground to conduct activities on behalf of the evil Communists and harm our compatriots and poison our children’s minds.”
In closing arguments, defense lawyer Nigel S. Malden said his clients had a “reasonable belief and faith in what they are doing” and asserted that upholding the libel claim would be a blow to First Amendment rights.
“It may very well muzzle existing political speech,” Malden said. “A public figure has to be able to take criticisms. He has to be willing to be challenged.” (end)