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US Court Dismisses Defamation Suit Filed By Hindu American Foundation Against Five Defendants Over Al-Jazeera Article

Padmakshi Sharma
23 Dec 2022 12:42 PM GMT
US Court Dismisses Defamation Suit Filed By Hindu American Foundation Against Five Defendants Over Al-Jazeera Article
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A US District Judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) alleging defamation by five defendants. The lawsuit was filed in the District Court of Columbia against co-founders of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) Sunita Vishwanath and Raju Rajagopal, Executive Director of Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) Rasheed Ahmed, Chairman of Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) John Prabhudoss, and Rutgers University Professor Audrey Truschke.

The case pertained to two online articles published by aljazeera.com, an online news platform operated by Al Jazeera Media Network. The articles concerned federal COVID-19 relief payments and loans distributed to five U.S.-based groups allegedly linked to Hindu nationalist organizations in India. HAF was one of the groups mentioned in the articles. HAF alleged that the Defendants conspired to publish allegedly false and defamatory statements and that the statements caused substantial injury to HAF, including lost donations and reputation damage.

The First Story in question had the headline "Hindu right-wing groups in US got $833,000 of federal COVID fund" and sub-headline "Five groups linked to Hindu nationalist organisations in India received direct payments and loans in federal relief fund." It described HAF as an advocacy group that "lobbies to deflect any criticism of [the] Modi government's policies on Capitol Hill" and "has open links with [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] (RSS) members." The Second Story in question had the headline "Call for US probe into Hindu right-wing groups getting COVID fund" and the sub-headline "Following an Al Jazeera report, US-based Coalition to Stop Genocide in India demanded investigation into federal funds given to 'sponsor hate.'" In the Second Story, the HAF was described as "US-based front organisations for Hindutva, the supremacist ideology that is the driving force behind much of the persecution of Christians, Muslims, Dalits, and other minorities in India."

It is pertinent to note that the defendants in the case were not the publishers or the authors of the articles but people who were either quoted in the articles or who had tweeted/shared the said articles.

The Defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of personal jurisdiction, lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and failure to state a claim. Accepting the preliminary objections raised by the Defendants, the Court allowed their motion to dismiss the suit.

No actual malice pleaded

The court further stated that it could not plausibly infer that any of the statements of the defendants were made with actual malice. The only allegation HAF points to in support of malice is the existence of publicly available financial statements. These allegations, as per the court, were not enough to sustain a claim.

"..this court finds that HAF fails to plead actual malice and thus fails to state a claim of defamation against all Defendants", the order passed by District Judge Amit Mehta stated.

Statements not verifiable false; they are statements of opinion

The order further stated :

"Furthermore, the court has reviewed the allegedly defamatory statements attributed to Defendants Viswanath, Rajagopal, Ahmed, and Truschke, and finds that HAF fails to plausibly plead that any statement made by any defendant is verifiably false. Most of the statements are clearly statements of opinion. For example, Defendant Viswanath is quoted in the First Story stating: "Any American non-profit that perpetuates Islamophobia and other forms of hate should not receive federal relief funds in any form." Compl. This is a nonactionable statement of opinion—Viswanath is expressing her view on what types of organizations are deserving of federal relief funds. Defendant Ahmed is quoted in the Second Story stating: "US taxpayers' money being used to keep hate groups in business is absolutely unacceptable and should concern all who believe in fairness, justice and government accountability." This is another clear statement of opinion expressing a view on how government funding should be distributed, and which groups are deserving of federal relief funds. (Defendant Rajagopal stating: "The rise of HAF and other organisations linked with Hindutva has emboldened Hindu supremacist organizations in India, while also stifling the moderate Hindu voices here in the US."); (Defendant Truschke tweeting: "As a scholar of South Asia, I can attest that some of these groups spread hate & use intimidation tactics. These things are dangerous and unwelcome on US soil"). For the stated reasons, HAF fails to plausibly plead that any statement made by any defendant is verifiably false".

Some statements arguably false, but not defamatory

The court further stated that "some of Truschke's statements are arguably verifiably false. See e.g., ("Full disclosure that the HAF Board member in question [Rajiv Pandit] has been going after me, along with a growing list of people, in recent days."). Nevertheless, even if proven false, HAF's defamation claim fails because the statement is not defamatory, the Court said.

The court further noted that Viswanath's claim that HAF has "parent organisations" in India is plausibly verifiably false. Nevertheless, the plausible falsehood of this claim does not save HAF's defamation claim against Viswanath, it said.

As per the order–

"Plaintiff alleges a common law civil conspiracy claim against all Defendants for conspiring to "defame HAF" by "causing false and disparaging statements about HAF to be published in the First and Second Stories." Civil conspiracy is not a standalone tort and "thus fails unless the elements of the underlying tort are satisfied." Because the underlying defamation claim against Prabhudoss fails, Plaintiff's civil conspiracy claim fails."

Accordingly, the defamation lawsuit was dismissed.

CASE TITLE: Hindu American Foundation v. Sunita Vishwanath

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