“It is time for plaintiff's case to be heard on the merits,” Judge James Richman wrote on behalf of the Alameda County Superior Court, on Jan. 11.
Grewal, 73, has lived in Union City for 39 years, and currently works as an interpreter for the Alameda County Superior Court. He was involved in establishing the Fremont gurdwara in 1977, and was a part of its management until 1983. But he remained a member of the sangat and was active in gurdwara elections. The gurdwara later became involved in three lawsuits between 1996 and 2002 regarding elections of its management.
“Apparently three lawsuits had no calming influence on some Temple members, and elections continue to generate intense feelings,” the judge wrote. “And it was allegedly in connection with an upcoming January 2006 election that the Punjab Times published the materials leading to plaintiff's lawsuit here.”
The defendants claimed they published articles in connection with two election issues: Whether the bylaws should be amended to extend the term of the board of directors and whether to delete ‘Panj Piaras’ from the bylaws, said Maxwell Njelita, Grewal’s lawyer.
“We’re not saying (the articles) are in connection with elections,” Njelita said. “We don’t believe that they were published in the heat of elections. We think they were an attempt to malign him. He’s lived there for four decades. He has influence.”
Mark Cohen, the defendants’ lawyer, did not return phone and email requests for comment. Jammu did respond but said he could not comment.
“Since the case is still going to trial, I cannot say much about the case except what you know about the dismissal of the appeal for the dismissal of the case,” he said by email.
According to court documents, the Punjab Times twice published “calumnious” statements about Grewal in 2005 that prompted Grewal to file a defamation lawsuit in 2006. The suit named seven defendants, including the newspaper’s Illinois publisher, A.B. Publication, Inc., and its editor Amolak Singh Jammu. The rest also are related to the newspaper.
According to court documents, a June 18, 2005 article and a Dec. 31, 2005 article in the Punjab Times accused Grewal of being dishonest, that he lacked respect for the Sikh religion, did not believe in taking Amrit, disrespected the Rehat Maryada and was devoid of the Sikh way of life.
Grewal does not wear a dastaar.
The articles stated that Grewal went into hiding in 1984 and only visited the gurdwara secretly, and that he sided with forces out to destroy the Sikh nation. The articles also stated that Grewal joined forces with a certain group in the forcible takeover of the gurdwara in 1996, and that thereafter he betrayed that group by joining forces with another opposing group.
Grewal then added Gurmeet Singh Khalsa to the list of accused. He was the single source for the articles. The court did not consider him a reliable source.
“The evidence revealed that the content of the publications originated from a single source: Gurmeet Singh,” the judge wrote. “According to abundant evidence presented by plaintiff, Gurmeet Singh had been charged with a criminal offense, arrested, and led from the Temple in handcuffs.”
The newspaper then followed with another article on May 24, 2008 accusing Grewal of describing the gurdwara’s Khalsa School as a "madrassa," a training ground for fundamentalist terrorists, and its students as “Talibans,” court documents say.
In Grewal’s complaint, he said: “The lies were not just published facts, but were printed with a larger font, highlighted with solid black margins around them, and with a full photograph of the Temple, to ensure that the articles did not escape the attention of the reader.”
Grewal amended his list of complaints in February 2009 to include the third article.
“Some of the defendants (in this suit) are power brokers involved in another lawsuit challenging elections,” Njelita said. Gurmeet Singh ran for the board of directors and lost in March 2010. Njelita represented the five directors who won the election, in that case.
“It’s quite possible that the reason they wrote the articles is because they felt Mr. Grewal supported some people running in the elections,” Njelita said. “To defeat those people, they would malign him and that would rub off on the candidate… They actually published articles to get some type of impact on elections. Perhaps because he supported people on the other side.”
The Punjab Times and Jammu petitioned the court in March 2009, days before the trial, to dismiss the case on grounds that the articles were lawfully protected because they were written about the elections, which are “an issue of public interest” and that Grewal is a public figure.
The Punjab Times also claimed that the articles were paid advertisements, not news stories.
“The newspaper contains ads from restaurants; I’m calling it a newspaper loosely,” Njelita said. “I can see the difference between a paid advertisement and an article.”
According to court documents, Grewal said the articles damaged his status in the community.
"The defendants' allegations have resulted in irreparable harm to me and my family,” he said. “Their false claims have been read and talked about by members of the Sikh community and received by many people as fact. Today my family and I cannot go out in public without receiving some accusatory glares from other members of the community.”
The Alameda County Court denied the Punjab Times’ and Jammu’s request in July 2009, saying that the articles did not involve a public interest issue, that Grewal was not a public figure and that Grewal demonstrated a “likelihood of prevailing” should his case go to trial.
The newspaper and Jammu appealed and again lost on Jan. 11, 2011.
The newspaper is not off the hook by claiming the articles were advertisements, it depends on the circumstances of the advertising, said Nathan Siegel, a first-amendment attorney in Washington and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The famous libel case, New York Times v. Sullivan, involved an advertisement. The case was thrown out because Sullivan was determined to be a public figure, even though he was not directly named in the advertisement.
If Grewal is not a public figure, as the court said, then he has a lesser burden of proof, Siegen said.
“The plaintiff doesn’t have to prove actual malice, he only has to prove negligence.”
It is very difficult to sue a newspaper. Grewal seems to have the upper hand at this time, but there is no guarantee he will prevail at trial.
If the defendants do not request a review by the California Supreme Court, the case will be sent back to the superior court, which will set a trial date, Njelita said.
“We’re pushing for trial this year.”