On Blogging & the First Amendment

I was interested to see a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution the other day regarding the “Hindu Temple of Georgia”:

The property of the Hindu Temple of Georgia was sold to the highest bidder Tuesday at a public foreclosure auction in Gwinnett County. It was unclear who bought the nine-acre property at 5900 Brook Hollow Parkway in Norcross following the temple’s default on a $2.3 million bank loan. A Gwinnett County court clerk said it typically takes about 30 days for a deed to be recorded after a foreclosure sale occurs. (link)

The person who ran the temple is the real story:

Lloyd Whitaker, a trustee appointed by a federal bankruptcy judge, said Anderson Lakes had intended to bid on the parcel. Court documents filed by the trustee this week say the temple’s leader and guru, Annamalai Annamalai, has been using the temple to “defeat justice, perpetuate fraud, and to evade contractual and tort responsibilities” since it was set up in 2006.

The trustee’s investigation has so far revealed that Annamalai, a citizen of India, applied for a work visa in 2007 under the pretext of working as an accountant for the temple for $40,000 a year. Yet Annamalai’s business records list his income at upward of $425,000 last year alone, court documents show. He has never filed federal or state tax returns, and the Internal Revenue Service has launched a criminal investigation into Annamalai’s financial dealings.

Financial documents obtained by the trustee also show that Annamalai has funneled money from the temple to other business entities that he controls, to accounts in the names of his wife and two children and to several of his priests. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in temple funds were used pay for the mortgage on Annamalai’s million-dollar mansion in Duluth, as well as his luxury vehicles and credit card bills, according to the court record. (link)

Why might all this be of interest, you may wonder.

Well, this past summer, Abhi and I received a “cease and desist” letter from attorneys representing the priest named in the AJC article asking us to delete a blog post I wrote in 2008 related to the Hindu Temple of Georgia. We also received a subpoena regarding the identity of a commenter on the comments thread following the post (someone who clearly had links to the Temple, not an ordinary commenter). My own first thought was that I was ready to basically give in to the threat, just to make it go away. At the time I got the letter, I was in a a bit of a blogging hiatus, and I had little interest in dealing with a potentially costly and time-consuming lawsuit related to something I had posted on Sepia Mutiny.

But after consulting with Abhi and a lawyer friend of Abhi’s in New York, it was decided that we would say no to the Cease and Desist: the blog post stayed, effectively unaltered. (As an attempt to mollify the Temple after getting several harassing phone calls from them, I had already added, some weeks earlier, one small update, indicating that one set of fraud charges against the Temple had been dropped.)

Nothing I had said in my original post could reasonably be construed as defamatory. Indeed, I had gone out of my way in the original post to try and see things from “Commander Selvam’s” side of things, pointing out that some aspects of the Fox 5 Atlanta story on him seemed somewhat exaggerated. Even the subtitle of the post seemed fair: “What do you think?”

By refusing to delete the blog post in question, we knew there was a significant danger of getting sued. Through a consultation with a journalist interested in the case we learned that the temple had already filed suit against at least one major media organization. They were also suing virtually everyone who had spoken out against the temple in any of the news coverage surrounding it, not to mention former temple employees.

Our lawyer friend also counseled us that we could ignore the subpoena regarding the identity of the commenter on the blog post in question. We also followed that advice; we let the comments stand, and did not reveal their IP addresses to the Temple.

Given how many lawsuits these guys were involved with in Gwinnett County, the writing seemed to be on the wall. I started talking to lawyers I knew in the Atlanta area, and began checking Orbitz to see how much it would cost me if I had to fly down to deal with what seemed like an inevitability.

But amazingly, we didn’t get any further correspondence from the Temple.

And then, on September 1, the Temple filed for bankruptcy. The stories in the Atlanta press, as well as at Fox 5 Atlanta, suggested that virtually no one in Atlanta was frequenting this particular temple anymore. (There are several other Hindu temples in Atlanta — all respectable institutions. After the bad press started coming out, folks who had been going to this particular temple had apparently started going elsewhere.)

On November 19, there was this story in the AJC, suggesting that both local and federal law authorities were aggressively moving against the head of the temple. The IRS was pursuing criminal charges, and the USCIS was planning to revoke the Commander’s visa.

And this week, the temple property was sold in foreclosure — meaning this particular story is probably at an end.

What did we learn? Aside from being gratified to see that a principled stance could acutally pay off, I learned a little bit about laws regarding defamation and how they affect blogs. You can definitely be sued for something you say about someone on a blog if it is defamatory. Most times, you are not liable for something a commenter might have said in the thread responding to your post — along the idea that a comments thread is like a public forum (AOL cannot be liable for everything people say in their chat rooms…). However, in at least one case, a blogger was held liable for defamatory statements on his blog, because the court found evidence that he had been an active moderator of the comments thread.

Readers who also have their own blogs might want to keep some of that in mind..

25 thoughts on “On Blogging & the First Amendment

  1. The courts ruled on a first amendment case in Anthony DiMeo III vs. Tucker Max. Here is the memorandum summarizing that case, but essentially a thread was dedicated on Tucker Max’s messageboard (an internet celeb famous for drinking, screwing, vulgarity) making fun of Anthony DiMeo’s Christmas Card (that was posted online by a local newspaper) and a failed New Year’s party. DiMeo sued and they took it to court.

    DiMeo wanted to go after individuals behind anonmymous comments as well. The court pretty much ruled in favor of the first amendment, and came to the following conclusion:

    III. Conclusion As we noted the last time we discussed the CDA, Some of the dialogue on the Internet surely tests the limits of conventional discourse. Speech on the Internet can be unfiltered, unpolished, and unconventional, even emotionally charged, sexually explicit, and vulgar — in a word, “indecent” in many communities. But we should expect such speech to occur in a medium in which citizens from all walks of life have a voice. American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, 929 F. Supp. 824, 882 (E.D. Pa. 1996).
    There is no question that tuckermax.com could be a poster child for the vulgarity we had in mind in 1996. But as we added then, “[w]e should also protect the autonomy that such a medium confers to ordinary people as well as media magnates.” Case 2:06-cv-01544-SD Document 13-1 Filed 05/26/2006 Page 19 of 20 -20- Id. Here we do so by protecting the coarse conversation that, it appears, never ends on tuckermax.com.

    Satire and opinions are protected. Now, if there was an active campaign to lie, decieve, and use such information to harm someone I guess one would have a solid case for libel (I’m not a laywer, so I’m interested if any legal types have an opinion).

  2. I cannot believe the temple was foreclosed on – but kinda makes sense if he was broke why he was aggressively pursueing lawsuits as a form of income… Abhi told me what was up, and I’m glad to hear it has come to a close. Over the years we have had our fair share of legal issues at Sepia Mutiny. I’m glad to see we are still standing strong.

    Thanks for sharing with everyone.

  3. “However, in at least one case, a blogger was held liable for defamatory statements on his blog, because the court found evidence that he had been an active moderator of the comments thread.”

    Eeek, good reminder.

  4. the bar is very high to trigger a first amendment exception here in the usa, but other countries aren’t so libertarian. i understand there is a concept called libel tourism, where censors take their case to say the UK (and presumably sepia mutiny is available there) and get a judgement.

    does anyone know how this works. i assume the judgement isn’t enforceable in the usa but what happens if abhi or amardeep step foot in the uk?

  5. i understand there is a concept called libel tourism

    you know, i actually had someone threaten me with a default judgement in england on me in 2004 because of something one of my commenters said about him. i ignored the threat and nothing came of it from what i could tell, but perhaps if i land in england i’m screwed. i should check.

  6. I guessed it would be an Amardeep article without reaching the end. A first for me.

  7. This part was interesting:

    After the bad press started coming out, folks who had been going to this particular temple had apparently started going elsewhere.

    It shows at least some folks have their heads screwed on right.

    I guessed it would be an Amardeep article without reaching the end.

    Yes, I too, skipped ahead within a paragraph of beginning to confirm a similar guess. :-)

  8. I’ve been sent angry “take down this blog post right now, we might even sue you” mails because I made fun of Mango Thokku. I had no idea I could be defamatory towards a pickle.

    Okay, I also referred to one of the writers of an online Mango Thokku recipe as “Aunt”, but that was truly out of respect! :-)

  9. Excellent work. When institutions start intimidating the media (in ANY form) into backing down for their own interests, the public loses. Good on you for sticking to your guns. I wish I had you as a model when I dropped out of journalism, mainly because I didn’t see these ideals being played out in mainstream media. And yet blogs take crap for being “subversive” and “stealing content”.

  10. Abhi, Amardeep and the Team at SM: I never had any doubts throughout this ordeal that in the end “Satya Mev Jayate”. “Only the Truth Shall Prevail”. One more win for freedom of expression in world’s strongest democracy. Carry on.

  11. blogging is like pogs.

    there are always two sides to it…there is a risk and reward… and if ANY TRIES TO STEAL MY NINJA TURTLE SLAMMER ILL KILL THEM

  12. I don” t get it. Why should Amardeep and Abhi have to spend a SINGLE DOLLAR to defend something as ridiculous as this? Let us assume they were taken to court. Shouldn’t Amardeep be able to countersue them for expenses because of a frivolous lawsuit? I know this never went to court. But if it did, I wish we had judges who would have thrown it out right away. The facts are clear. Amardeep saw the story in a mainstream media outlet and made observations which are based off of that source. He did not pretend to ADD any facts. but he is free to express any opinion he wants based on the facts he read about.

  13. Wow, that’s pretty unfortunate. Good for Sepia Mutiny, but unfortunate for the Hindus of Georgia. No one needs bad press like this. I wonder it’ll affect the building of other temples in the area.