Libel Suit Over Chen's Reaction to Sign Rejected

December 12, 1985|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

A libel suit against the City of Monterey Park and Councilwoman Lily Lee Chen over a sign in a closed gas station that Chen called "racist" has been dismissed by a Pasadena Superior Court judge.

After a hearing last week, Judge Daniel Fletcher ruled that Chen was immune from libel action because she was acting in an official capacity and because she was merely expressing an opinion, not alleging a fact.

The $2-million lawsuit was filed in February by Eddie Aljian, who formerly owned a gas station at Atlantic Boulevard and Floral Drive in Monterey Park. He claimed that he was libeled in a letter from Chen that suggested he was responsible for a sign that said: "Will the last American leaving Monterey Park please take down the American flag."

Visible From Street

The sign, visible from the street, appeared on the inside of the gas station window after Aljian closed the business and moved to the San Joaquin Valley.

Chen said she sent the letter to Aljian and also gave copies to council members in April, 1984, while serving as mayor because she was upset at what she called a slur against immigrants. The suit was filed in February.

Chen said she was delighted by the dismissal and issued a written statement saying: "I harbor no feelings of ill will toward anyone. I performed what I perceived to be my duty and responsibility, which is to voice objection to any and all slurs against any segment of the community.

'Not Isolated Incident'

"The appearance of this sign was not a single isolated incident of intolerance. It occurred against a backdrop of growing racial tension and controversy which has polarized the residents of Monterey Park this past year."

She said both the sign and the recent petition effort to declare English the official language of Monterey Park are "two of the most visible manifestations of growing racial intolerance in the area."

There has been intense controversy over the impact of Asian immigration on the city. The Asian population has grown from 15% in 1970 to an estimated 40% today. Total population is estimated at 60,000.

Chen, who was born in China, said: "As a naturalized American, I possess a special sensitivity to the concerns and problems of newcomers. But the promotion of racial harmony and community cohesion are not just my concerns; they are the concerns of everyone who believes in democracy."

Moved From City

Aljian's attorney, Raul R. Granados, said Aljian did not put up the sign and, in fact, had moved to the San Joaquin Valley by the time the sign appeared. The lawsuit asserted that Chen's letter exposed Aljian to "hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy" by holding him responsible for "racist, un-American statements." Aljian could not be reached for comment.

In her letter to Aljian, Chen said: "The City Council and I were very disturbed that such a racist sign be displayed in America, and especially in our city, which prides itself in being a harmonious community composed of a good balance of people of varied ethnic backgrounds, the great majority of whom are American citizens. The sign only serves to promulgate racial discord and is contrary to the very essence of our multiracial country. . . . We truly hope that you will reflect upon the thoughtlessness of your act and behave as a good and true American."

In seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, attorneys Jeffrey Gordon and Richard Morillo argued in court papers that Chen was immune from a libel suit because she was acting as mayor to express a city policy of fostering racial harmony. They cited as precedent a state Supreme Court decision that said: "The purpose of the official immunity accorded government officers is to avoid the 'chilling effect' which the fear of damage suits would have on the energetic performance of the public's business."

The attorneys also argued that Chen was only voicing an opinion when she described the sign as "very distasteful, un-American and racist." They said courts have protected the use of "epithets, fiery rhetoric or hyperbole" in matters of public debate.

The only fact in the letter that could be disputed, they said, is the implication that Aljian was responsible for the sign. But, they argued, "The implication that Aljian exhibited the sign is not defamatory in itself, and, in conjunction with the other phrases, which are clearly statements of opinion, this implication remains nonactionable."

Granados said he will discuss with Aljian the possibility of appealing the judge's decision. Granados said: "Defamatory speech is constantly being redefined." He added that he thought the rulings that Chen held absolute immunity and was merely expressing an opinion might be reversed on appeal.

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