Northwest Asian Weekly
The Washington State Supreme Court reinstated a $310,000 jury award to Olympia resident Vietnamese American Duc Tan May 2, reversing a decision by the state Court of Appeals. Tan was awarded the judgment after suing five other Vietnamese community members who he said defamed him by calling him a “communist” and an “undercover agent” of the Viet Cong in several public notices and newsletters that were published both on the Internet and in local media.
The Vietnamese-American community is vehemently anti-communist, and being labeled a communist can greatly affect one’s standing in the community. In a year 2000 poll conducted by the Orange County Register — the daily newspaper serving one of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the United States — 71 percent of respondents ranked fight communism as a “top priority” or “very important.” In 1999, protests against a video-store owner in Westminster, Calif who posted a picture of Vietnamese community leader Ho Chi Minh in his store’s window peaked when 15,000 held an overnight vigil in front of his store. Visits to the United States by Vietnamese officials and politicians are regularly protested.
Both the defendants and the plaintiff escaped Vietnam following the Vietnam War. Tan moved to Olympia in 1979 after fleeing Vietnam due to fear for his family in 1978. In Vietnam, he was a teacher until the South Vietnamese Army drafted him for military training in 1968. After training, he returned to teaching while retaining his military rank. He was imprisoned in a Communist reeducation camp following the fall of Saigon and was released after signing a loyalty pledge to the communist party. Defendants Norman Le, Dat Ho, Phiet Nguyen, Nhan Tran, and Nga Pham were all born in Vietnam. Tran and Ho escaped Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Le was imprisoned in a labor camp for nearly ten years. Nguyen was imprisoned in a labor camp for nearly seven years.
Tan originally sued the group in 2004; stating that claims made by the defendants in 2003 — including that of an organization he was involved with accepted money from the communist government of Vietnam, planned events to fall on communist holidays, played the communist Vietnamese national anthem, that Tan was an undercover VC agent, and that he displayed the Vietnamese flag in his language classroom — were defamatory and that the defendants knew some of them were untrue. A jury awarded Tan $225,000 and his organization, the Vietnamese Community of Thurston County, $85,000 in damages in 2009. However, the state Court of Appeals reversed the jury’s verdict. The court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiffs failed to prove the defendants acted with “actual malice,” which is necessary in defamation cases.
The Supreme Court disagreed in its opinion, with six judges supporting the majority decision, one in the dissenting opinion, and three not participating.
“We hold that the provably false statements made in the Public Notice and in Le’s articles are actionable,” reads the majority opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. “We conclude that clear and convincing evidence in this case supports the jury’s finding that the defendants acted with actual malice.”
In trial, many of the claims made by the defendant were proved untrue.
“…(1) defendants knew that people did not boycott the VCTC because Le himself remained associated with the VCTC for years after the name change; (2) Le knew that Hua never said he would accept Viet Cong money because Le was present when Hua spoke and the defendants did not accuse the market owner who donated the funds of being pro-Communist; (3) the VCTC newsletter did not advocate for organizing on the anniversary of September 2; ( 4) the defendants were aware that the playing of the Vietnam national anthem was an accident and that the VCTC issued an apology; (5) none of the defendants testified that Tan actually refused to display the nationalist flag, and Dat Ho even testified that he was aware that Tan displayed the national flag at the language school; and (6) the defendants admitted that if the VCTC had held a meeting to commemorate the Fall Revolution, there would have been an uproar and significant media attention, which no one testified had occurred,” the opinion reads. (end)
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