Orange County jurors this week ordered the Vietnamese-language weekly newspaper Saigon Nho to pay $4.5 million in damages for defamation of a rival publication, Nguoi Viet Daily News, a landmark decision for an ethnic media landscape where rumors and red-baiting often make their way into print.
In addition to a $3 million judgement announced Monday for damages related to harming to their reputation, jurors on Tuesday announced that the owners of Saigon Nho must also pay $1.5 million for punitive damages — meant to discourage such conduct from occurring again — to the Westminster-based publication, the oldest and largest Vietnamese language newspaper in the country.
The 12-person jury announced their verdicts after deliberations on both Monday and Tuesday, presided over by OC Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Horn.
“A lot of people don’t realize this is an unfortunate cheap shot that’s common in the community. The easiest way to hurt someone is to say, you’re a communist and your wife is a whore,” said Hoyt E. Hart, who has been in-house counsel for Nguoi Viet since 2008.
Named for the iconic “Little Saigon” district where it was founded, Saigon Nho caters its content to a wide national audience and is sold in Vietnamese communities around the country.
Hoang Duoc Thao, the paper’s owner, has continued to defend her publication and columns as a voice for the “anti-communist community.”
Her column, written under the name Dao Nuong, is printed at the beginning of a 100-page, glossy cover tabloid magazine alongside hundreds of advertisements, articles and commentaries on current affairs.
Nguoi Viet first filed suit against Thao and Saigon Nho in Sept. 2012 over an article in which she insinuated the newspaper has ties to the communist regime.
Beyond simply being untrue, statements are only considered libelous and defamatory when they cause harm and are made with a reckless disregard for the truth.
The jury was unanimous Monday in their vote to award Nguoi Viet a $3 million settlement. On Tuesday, the jury voted 10-2 to award an additional $1.5 million in punitive damages, with the no votes citing disagreement over the amount that should be awarded.
Whether or not Saigon Nho will survive the $4.5 settlement is unclear.
In his closing statement, Aaron Morris, the attorney representing the paper, told the jury that awarding punitive damages would, in effect, shut down Saigon Nho altogether.
The newspaper’s assets include a warehouse building, purchased in 2005 for $1.65 million and refinanced in 2008 at $2.1 million, and two printing presses worth about $860,000.
It also brings in $3 to $4 million in ad revenue each year.
Thao said she has been selling off assets to make up for those losses and is focused on keeping her employees, who number more than 50, employed.
Phan, who has been Nguoi Viet’s CEO since 2008, estimated Saigon Nho’s value at $10 million, based on its real estate holdings, printing presses, ad revenue and print sales.
Morris said there was “no question” that Thao would appeal the decision. She has 60 days to file an appeal, although collection on the $4.5 million could begin before then.
“We’re very disappointed [in the verdict] as there is no evidence of actual damages,” Morris said.
Asked after Monday’s proceedings if Saigon Nho might shut its doors as a result of the court’s judgment, Thao said the anti-communist voice “will never be silenced.”
She also said the trial was conducted unfairly.
“My column is not to defame them. It raised legitimate questions [about Nguoi Viet]. I’m sorry the jurors didn’t have a chance to see the other side,” Thao said.
Thao was not in court on Tuesday.
In the July 2012 article, Thao called Vinh Hoang, the paper’s director of marketing, “mentally defective and known to have many scandalous affairs,” according to a translation provided by Nguoi Viet in court documents.
Thao also falsely stated that Dat Huy Phan, the paper’s CEO, was an agent for the Vietnam’s Communist government and claimed the communists are the true owner of the newspaper.
Nguoi Viet demanded a retraction to the article, to which Thao responded by publishing their demands in Saigon Nho, according to court records.
In the trial, the prosecution argued that Thao acted maliciously with the intent to shut down Nguoi Viet altogether, showing jurors several video clips of Thao denouncing the paper and vowing to drive them out of business.
“When I win the lawsuit, I’ll publish a book called ‘The Rise and Fall of Nguoi Viet Daily News,’” Thao said in one clip of a press conference in February.
Adam King, one of the jurors, said the retraction response was one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that influenced his own decision.
“[Thao] had a chance to fix it — Nguoi Viet gave her a chance and she chose not to,” King said.
Such false accusations are common political cannon fodder in Orange County’s Vietnamese American community, where being perceived as having communist sympathies can be an effective discrediting tactic, as many of the traumas and wounds of the Vietnam War still have a strong emotional impact.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been accused of having ties to communists, allegations that, while quite important to many, are difficult to prove.
Prior to the November election, pictures from 2006 photo of Republican State Sen. Janet Nguyen with a man with alleged communist ties circulated through the media.
Former Democratic Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater sent out a red-and-yellow campaign mailer accusing his opponent, incumbent Mayor Bao Nguyen, also a Democrat, of communist sympathies.
Nguoi Viet argued in court documents that associations with the communist government evoke strong “feelings of hatred, contempt and ridicule, causing the victim to be shunned, avoided and injured in his or her profession.”
Beyond local politics, anti-communist protests have also had a chilling effect on the work of Vietnamese American journalists.
In 2008, the paper published a photo of an art installation depicting a foot spa painted with the colors of the flag of the former South Vietnam, which was deemed by many as offensive and sparked protests in front of the newspaper’s headquarters that lasted for more than two months.
The paper alleged that protestors assaulted staff, urinated on cars, shredded newspapers and harassed the publisher at the time, Anh Do.
Nguoi Viet denied the accusations, obtained a temporary court injunction to limit the protestors’ behavior and later sued them for defamation.
Vietnamese American journalists have also faced threats of violence in the past. In the 1980s, five Vietnamese journalists were killed in the United States, with at least two killings linked to right-wing, anti-communist groups.
Hart, the lawyer for Nguoi Viet, said the judgment would have ramifications for how politics play out in the entire Vietnamese community.
“It’s very expensive to sue, and most people can’t afford it, so it was up to us,” Hart said. “She picked the wrong victim this time, because we can fight back.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @thyanhvo.