WASHINGTON, D.C. – Top American attorneys representing defendants in the recently dismissed Hindu American Foundation (HAF) lawsuit have rejected the Hindu body’s false claims about the court ruling.
On December 21, Judge Amit P. Mehta of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the lawsuit on various grounds. The lawsuit targeted Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) Executive Director Rasheed Ahmed and four activists for providing quotes critical of HAF in two Al Jazeera articles and against academic Audrey Truschke for sharing the articles on her Twitter handle.
Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a top attorney with Dorsey & Whitney LLP, who represented IAMC’s Ahmed in the case, said that HAF is “fortunate” that courts “are not able to sue for defamation when their opinions are mischaracterised.” He made these comments while speaking at a Congressional briefing on January 4 alongside attorneys Daniel M. Sullivan and Thomas B. Sullivan.
All three attorneys rejected a series of false claims made by HAF in the aftermath of the ruling, including a press release in which the rightwing group claimed that “the court found that [the defendants] lie about HAF.”
Although Judge Mehta has thoroughly dismissed HAF’s claims that the defendants “conspired” to “defame” the organisation, saying that most of the defendant’s statements were “clear statements of opinion,” HAF has pointed to two footnotes in the ruling labelling Sunita Vishwanath’s statements as “plausibly verifiably false” and Truschke’s statements as “arguably verifiably false.” In their press release, HAF used these terms to claim that the court found both defendants to have lied.
The defendants’ attorneys labelled these claims as false and indicative of HAF’s “desperation.”
“It is remarkable to me that HAF has kind of put the spin on the lawsuit that it has,” said Daniel Sullivan, an attorney and partner at Holwell Shuster & Goldberg LLP, who represented defendant John Prabhudoss, the chairman of Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations (FIACONA).
However, Thomas Sullivan, a partner in the Media & Entertainment Group of Ballard Spahr LLP who represented Vishwanath and Raju Rajagopal of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) in the case, confirmed that HAF’s argument is based on a mischaracterisation of the judge’s ruling.
“What that means is that potentially those are statements that could be proven true or false… That’s it. It wasn’t a ruling that anything anybody said was false. It wasn’t a ruling that any of the defendants in this case lied,” said Sullivan.
“So to the extent, they’re saying that’s some sort of moral victory, it is not. It’s just saying that it’s something that conceivably could be proven true as a matter of logic, not that it is actually true or false.”
“The fact that HAF has honed in on [those footnotes] just shows the desperation to find some manner of silver lining. I think the same can be said for the point that HAF has made repeatedly about this being merely a procedural victory,” said Colangelo-Bryan. “You can only believe that if you ignore the second half of the court’s opinion, which HAF seems to be doing.”
Moreover, Daniel Sullivan said, both articles included “a lot of concrete facts” that HAF “didn’t even contest” or claim as false.
“They didn’t contest that HAF’s treasurer is the son of the National Vice President of the US wing of the RSS. They didn’t contest that his family had donated a significant sum to HAF in 2018. They didn’t contest that a co-founder of HAF was formally associated with an affiliate of the RSS. They didn’t contest that HAF had defended the Indian government’s passage of legislation that the United Nations described as fundamentally discriminatory… They didn’t claim that any of that was untrue,” he said.
In its press release, HAF further claimed that the judge had acknowledged that the defendants’ statements had injured the organisation. Thomas Sullivan debunked that claim by pointing out that the judge “made no finding that HAF was injured by any of these statements.”
“In fact, [Judge Mehta] found they barely came off the line of even pleading an injury,” he said. “The judge did not find that these statements injured HAF. He was just saying that if they were injured, the injury would have been felt in DC, where they were located.”
On the “conspiracy” charge, Colangelo-Bryan said: “I think Judge Mehta’s decision… really emphasises the fact that HAF simply made this idea [of conspiracy] up. It could not point to anything at all to suggest in any way that the defendants had agreed to do anything, let alone defame HAF.”
“I think even first-year lawyers should have gotten this case dismissed because it was so bad. The flaws were really evident as soon as you looked at the complaint,” Colangelo-Bryan added.
In their overall reflections on the case, all three attorneys stated that the lawsuit was a “clear” attempt to silence and harass critics of the HAF.
“If you think a media company has defamed you in two articles, well, don’t you just sue the media company?” said Colangelo-Bryan. “Instead, we see directors of nonprofit bodies and academics being sued. Obviously, it’s easier to intimidate people with a lawsuit if those people don’t necessarily have unlimited budgets to defend themselves in court.”
“You can’t be sued for statements that are statements of opinion. They have to be statements that can be proved true or false… political debates or differences of opinion shouldn’t become automatic lawsuits,” said Thomas Sullivan.
“It seemed like this was an attempt to go after folks who were uncommon targets of these suits, and it just seemed like the right thing to do to protect people from an attempt to silence them and to shut off a side of the debate about a political issue,” he added.
“It was immediately apparent to what was going on here and what this lawsuit was, that it was an attempt to silence HAF’s critics,” said Daniel Sullivan. “A public entity like HAF can’t complain about criticism unless it can show that the person who criticized it not only said something false but said so knowing… that it was false.”
Also speaking at the briefing were all five defendants, who commented on the stress brought on by the lawsuit.
“I think HAF probably forgot that they are in America, not in India. So instead of physical violence, they’re using legal violence. It’s like the legal lynching of anybody who wants to have a difference of opinion from them,” said Rasheed Ahmed.
Audrey Truschke stated that just before the lawsuit was filed, she had publicly announced an ongoing research project into the US-based Hindu rightwing, including research on HAF.
“[HAF] knew that when they sued me,” she said. “In my opinion, they sued me to stop my research. There was simply no other reason to include me in this lawsuit.”
Raju Rajagopal stated that he believes the lawsuit victory “absolutely” sets a precedent going forward.
“What this is telling the powers that be in India is that there are limits to how far they can use diaspora-based Hindu organisations to do their bidding… I think they’ll be thinking twice and looking at the limitations of organisations like HAF in acting as a shield against their inhuman policies against the minorities in India,” he said.
“My caution to Washington is that [Hindutva] is a dangerous trend and a dangerous ideology,” said Prabhudoss. “If that kind of venom is allowed to seep into society, it’s not going to be a fight between two immigrant ethnic groups in America. It’s going to be a major problem for American interests, American ideals.”
“This lawsuit is just one of innumerable examples of the currency of the right, especially the Hindu right, which is a distortion of truth,” said Vishwanath. “What we do in our advocacy is to bust the myths and tell the truth. And that’s what we’ll continue doing.”
The briefing was co-sponsored by Genocide Watch, World Without Genocide, Indian American Muslim Council, Hindus for Human Rights, International Christian Concern, Jubilee Campaign, 21Wilberforce, Dalit Solidarity Forum, New York State Council of Churches, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America, India Civil Watch International, Center for Pluralism, International Commission for Dalit Rights, American Muslim Institution, Students Against Hindutva Ideology, International Society for Peace and Justice, The Humanism Project and Association of Indian Muslims of America.