Islamic Council Sues Ballenger for Defamation

Posted December 3, 2003 at 1:17pm

The Council of American-Islamic Relations filed a $2 million defamation lawsuit Tuesday against Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) in response to a slew of negative remarks the Congressman made about the group earlier this year.

“With this lawsuit, we are sending a clear message to all those who make malicious and defamatory statements against American Muslims or their institutions that they will be held accountable in a court of law,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, the council’s director of legal affairs.

The group is seeking $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages, together with costs and attorney’s fees.

Ballenger’s office declined to comment saying that it did not know the details of the lawsuit.

In October, The Charlotte Observer ran a story in which Ballenger, 77, claimed that the stress of living near the council’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., caused the breakup of his 50-year marriage.

Ballenger — who announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election after nine terms in Congress — said his home’s proximity to the council after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “bugged the hell” out of his wife and the couple worried that the group was so close to the Capitol that “they could blow the place up.”

The council said in a press statement today that it has also taken issue with Ballenger’s claim that the group is “the fundraising arm for Hezbollah,” saying that the Congressman’s “defamatory statements harmed the group’s reputation” and were not protected speech because he did not make them within the scope of his role as a House Member.

The Speech or Debate Clause contained in Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution protects speech and actions directly related to the legislative function of a lawmaker.

The courts, however, have rejected the Speech or Debate Clause defense in cases involving press releases. In the 1979 Supreme Court case Hutchinson v. Proxmire, the court held that statements made by then-Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) in newsletter and press releases were not protected under the Speech or Debate Clause.

The statements at the center of the controversy involved Proxmire’s awarding of his “Golden Fleece Award of the Month” in 1975 to a behavioral scientist conducting research on behalf of a federal agency. Proxmire called the scientist’s research “nonsense” and a waste of tax dollars — and the researcher sued Proxmire for libel.

While the court did not find Proxmire’s statements libelous — because they were not made with “actual malice” — it said he could not use the Speech or Debate Clause defense because the statements at issue were not made as part of the core legislative process.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has claimed in its suit that Ballenger’s statements and claims that the group raised money for terrorists were made “with actual malice, wrongful and willful intent to injure … and with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.”

Ballenger also stirred up controversy a year ago when he said that then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) had brought out “a little bit of a segregationist feeling” in him.

“I mean, she was such a bitch,” said Ballenger, who later apologized for what he called “pretty stupid remarks.”

The council, America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group, is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and has 25 regional offices and chapters nationwide and in Canada.