Modern Day McCarthyism: The Case of Duc Tan
Nguoi Viet Tay Bac, News feature, Dr. Julie Pham Posted: Apr 25, 2009
On April 16, 2009, the Thurston County Court ruled in favor of a Vietnamese man who sued for defamation. This case was the first of its kind in the state of Washington.
The court found the five defendants, Norman Le, Dat Ho, Nga Pham, Nhan Tran, and Phiet Nguyen, guilty for wrongly accusing the plaintiff, Duc Tan, and the non-profit organization, the Vietnamese Community of Thurston County (VCTC), of having communist sympathies.
The defendants were fined $310,000. Of this fine, $225,000 was awarded to Duc Tan, the principal of a Vietnamese language school in Thurston County, and $85,000 to VCTC, whose president is Duc Hua. Duc Tan filed the suit in 2004.
The defendants published their accusations in mass emails, Internet site postings, and the local Vietnamese press. Defendant Dr. Norman Le said one such newspaper, New Horizons, was ordered to pay $25,000 of the $225,000 fine.
According to The Olympian, which broke the news of the case and detailed the evidence presented during the trial, the defendants “made no immediate comment after the verdict.”
A few days later, three of the defendants, Norman Le, Nhan Tran, and Dat Ho, along with plaintiff Duc Tan and Duc Hua, agreed to speak to Northwest Vietnamese News.
Those outside the Vietnamese community may see the defendants’ accusations of communist sympathies as modern day McCarthyism. But in this case, both the defendants and plaintiffs fought against communism during the Second Indochina War.
All those interviewed invoked a word commonly used within the Vietnamese émigré community to describe the act of wrongly accusing someone of communist sympathies: chụp mũ.
As this trial brought to light, chụp mũ is a widespread practice among Vietnamese community leaders. However, it is very rare for a person who has been chụp mũ to sue his/her accusers.
“Many people in our community have been chụp mũ, but they don’t dare go to court,” the plaintiff Duc Tan said. “Everyone wants to forget or to make amends instead of going to court. But we couldn’t tolerate it any longer. We had to take a stand, to file a lawsuit. Otherwise our consciences would have continued to nag at us.”
The defense argued that community leaders should expect to be subject to criticism.
“Even I have been chụp mũ,” defendant Dr. Norman Le said, “When you are a community leader, you have to be able to swallow the criticisms of your constituents and the public at large.”
President of the Vietnamese Community of Tacoma and Pierce County doctor Dung Nguyen disagrees. He served as a character witness for the plaintiff.
“I have been chụp mũ for over ten years now,” said Dr. Nguyen. “With the court ruling in favor of Duc Tan and Duc Hua, I hope this case will set a precedent and force those who chụp mũ to be more prudent, more responsible.”
Duc Tan said that in his case, being chụp mũ even led to a death threat.
Fears of communism and being called communists
The defendants expressed real fears of communist sympathizers in their community.
“Resolution 36, in which the Vietnamese government funds the propagation of communist propaganda overseas, was released several years ago. We think it’s important to watch for signs of communist propaganda and communist activity,” said Dr. Le. “We need to fight communism. We left Vietnam to escape communism. We do not want our children to have to leave the US to escape the communists who have come here.”
Dr. Le himself spent nine years and seven months in a communist re-education camp in Vietnam.
In order to determine who is sympathetic to communism, Dr. Le said “We can only use our judgment, because a communist never puts a badge on their chest saying, “I’m a communist.”
Also real are the fears of becoming vulnerable to chụp mũ if one decides to help organize Vietnamese community activities.
Duc Tan said one of the reasons he decided to sue was because he saw that “young people were scared to take part in community organizing, weary of the politics around chụp mũ.”
Duc Hua added, “Those on the organizing committee of VCTC pulled out. They even testified they did so because they were afraid of being chụp mũ.”
This case has already affected the extent of chụp mũ in the Vietnamese community in Washington. Soon after the Thurston County Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, one group that began sending out email reports accusing dozens of members of the local Vietnamese community of harboring communist sympathies earlier this month drastically shortened its list to a handful of people.
Freedom of speech or freedom to slander?
The defense lawyer Nigel Malden said that his clients were exercising their freedom of speech.
“All the statements were presented in a way that any reader could review the material and make their own decisions,” said Malden. “They were expressing what they believed to be true and someone else might look at it and have a different opinion.”
He added, “It’s disturbing that an American jury didn’t give more latitude to the people who actually lived under communism. They are very sensitive to communist symbols.”
The prosecutor Gregory Rhodes said the defendants “presented their opinions as statements of facts.”
“This wasn’t just defamation,” said Rhodes. “These were downright lies and for the defendants to do this was so callous and extremely sad for the whole community.”
In the trial, the prosecution presented a striking piece of evidence to prove Duc Tan’s anti-communism: a photograph of Duc Tan in a rally fighting for the freedom of political prisoners in Vietnam. It was taken when he first came to the US in 1978. Rhodes pointed out the ironic fact that “the people he was fighting for are the same people who are accusing him of being a communist now.”
Where to go from here
With the $310,000 awarded by the court, Duc Tan and Duc Hua said they will use it to build up the Vietnamese language school in Thurston County.
Thuy Vu, a professor at Evergreen College and the University of Washington, and a long-time resident of Thurston County said, “The case is over now. I only hope that the Vietnamese here can put this behind us and use our energy to build up the community for the future generation.”
The trial may be over, but the defense will not rest.
“After we heard the court’s decision, that we had lost, we viewed it as a single battle in an entire war,” the defendant Dat Ho said. “One should not expect that he/she must always win. What is important is that we continue fighting for our good cause and we are confident that we will finally win.”
Duc Tan said, “We sued so that we could bring light to this issue and now our work is done. We wait to hear from the other side.”
In an email dated April 22, Malden said he would file a brief requesting a new trial on April 27 on behalf of the defense.
“We will be asking the court to reconsider some of its evidentiary rulings,” Malden said.
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