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‘Communist’ Allegation Wasn’t Defamation

HOUSTON (CN) — A Houston magazine editor did not defame a public official by calling him a "Vietnamese Communist" because the statement wasn't deliberately false, a Texas appeals court ruled.

Aloysius "Al" Hoang, an attorney, sued the Vietnamese weekly magazine Thoi Bao Houston and its editor, Thinh Dat Nguyen, in October 2014.

When he filed the pro se lawsuit, Hoang was the Republican candidate for House District 149, a southwest Harris County district that is one of the most diverse in Texas. Around 20 percent of its residents are Vietnamese.

Hoang lost the general election three weeks later to longtime incumbent Herbert Vo, by 2,134 votes.

Hoang, 54, became the first Vietnamese-American to serve on the Houston City Council in January 2010.

He claims in the lawsuit that he lost that seat in 2013 because of defamatory articles Nguyen published in Thoi Bao Houston that called him a "a Vietnamese Communist, an agent of Vietnamese Communist, or a spy of the Vietnamese Communist," according to the case record.

The magazine prints editions around the world.

Accusations of Communist sympathy are fighting words among the United States' roughly 1.6 million Vietnamese-Americans, and have led to numerous lawsuits involving small Vietnamese-language publications.

Nguyen and Thoi Bao Houston sought dismissal under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, an anti-SLAPP law that protects citizens from retaliatory lawsuits after speaking on matters of public interest.

Harris County Judge Elaine Palmer dismissed in November 2014 and Hoang appealed to the 14th Texas Court of Appeals in Houston.

Public officials must clear a higher bar than private people in defamation lawsuits, as they must prove malice: that whoever made the defamatory statement knew it was untrue when he made it, or recklessly disregarded whether it was true or not.

Hoang argued on appeal that Nguyen showed malice by ignoring his demands to stop calling him a Communist in the magazine, to engage him in a public debate or public interview, and to give him equal space in Thoi Bao Houston to defend himself.

The appeals court sided with Nguyen on Aug. 30, and affirmed dismissal.

"Appellant was required to present 'clear and specific' evidence that appellees published the statements knowing they were false or with reckless disregard for their truth. Appellant presented no such evidence," Justice John Donovan wrote for a three-judge panel.

Hoang no longer works at the law office he listed as a contact phone number on his appeal notice, according to a receptionist who answered the phone Thursday morning.

She gave Courthouse News a cellphone number for Hoang that is no longer valid.

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