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Court dismisses Hindu American Foundation’s defamation suit against Audrey Truschke, IAMC and others

On Tuesday, December 20, the US District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the defamation suit filed by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF)  against Hindus for Human Rights co-founders Sunita Vishwanath and Raju Rajagopal, Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) executive director Rasheed Ahmed, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) chairman John Prabhudoss, and Rutgers University professor Audrey Truschke.

The HAF had accused them of conspiring to defame the foundation. Al Jazeera journalist Raqib Hameed Naik was named as a co-conspirator but not a party in the main lawsuit. 

US District Judge Amit Mehta although dismissed the defamation suit filed by HAF, noted that Hindus for Human Rights co-founder Sunita Vishwanath’s claim that HAF has parent organisations in India is “plausibly verifiably false.” The court also observed that some of the statements given by Rutgers University professor Audrey Truschke  about HAF Board member Rajiv Pandit are “arguably verifiably false.”

Excerpt from the court order (Image tweeted by HAF)

In its lawsuit, HAF had contended that its “reputation, and ability to raise funds has been injured due to the defamatory statements given by the defendants. The court agreed to HAF’s allegation that the foundation suffered “torturous injury” in the district due to the allegedly defamatory statements. 

Concerning the defendants named in the lawsuit’s claim that none of them live in the District of Columbia, the judge ruled that “Plaintiff must establish that defendants themselves transacted business in the District of Columbia, which it has failed to do.”

According to the court’s ruling, the Hindu American Foundation’s defamation lawsuit against Prabhudoss is futile because the group did not plausibly assert that his claims are “verifiably false.”

Prabhudoss had told Al Jazeera that US government watchdog groups and human rights organizations should take note of the misappropriation of funds raised for Covid-19 by “Hindu supremacist groups.”

On this, the court observed that Prabhudoss’s claim is a “statement of opinion.” “He was just stating his views about how certain organizations should respond to what in his opinion is misappropriation of funds. The said statement is not actionable as defamation as an expression of a subjective view is not plausibly false and cannot undergird a claim of defamation.”

HAF’s claim of civil conspiracy was also rejected as the court said that civil conspiracy is not a standalone tort and “thus fails unless the elements of the underlying tort are satisfied.”

Court order, via HAF

On the verdict, HAF’s Executive Director Suhag A Shukla in a statement said, “It is incredibly disappointing that, despite the fact that Vishwanath and Truschke, among others, were found to have made verifiably false statements attacking HAF, the judge dismissed our legal action on procedural grounds. We remain convinced that the defendants’ false and malicious statements about HAF constitute actionable defamation, and we have every reason to believe that they will continue to spread their malicious lies.”

The HAF although disappointed with the verdict, feels “vindicated” as the court noted that false statements about HAF were indeed made.

Background of the case

The lawsuit was filed in May 2021, following the publication by Al Jazeera of an article by Raqib Naik highlighting five Hindu American organizations, including the HAF, that received COVID-19 relief funding in the form of loans and grants. According to the report, which cites data from the Small Business Administration (SBA), these organizations, which allegedly have “ties to Hindu supremacist and religious groups,” have received a total of $833,000 in federal funding.

In its complaint, HAF alleged that the defendants used the ‘Coalition to Stop Genocide in India’, a US-based organization, as cover to make additional defamatory claims about HAF and demand the US government launch an investigation into HAF and other Hindu organizations for purportedly using Federal funds to “sponsor hate” in India

On April 2nd, 2022, controversial ‘historian’ Audrey Truschke shared an article published by Aljazeera, wherein it claimed that 5 organisations have received US federal relief funds to the tune of $833,000. The article alleged that the organisations have links to ‘Hindu supremacist groups’.

Citing the said article, Audrey Truschke alleged that the groups are known for engaging in violence, stifling academic inquiry, and promoting religious bigotry. She listed the names of the 5 groups mentioned in the article and alleged that they are connected to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

One of the groups mentioned in the article was the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which is based in Washington DC. As per Aljazeera, HAF received $378,064 in PPP loans and $10,000 in EIDLA from US federal relief funds. The other organisations included Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, Infinity Foundation and Sewa International.

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