JANUARY 1992 was a crucial month for legal developments impacting ISKCON's future. On January 10 the United States Supreme Court granted review of ISKCON v. Lee in a case involving the right of ISKCON members to distribute religious literature and receive voluntary donations in the terminals of the New York metropolitan airport. Then, on January 30, the California Court of Appeal reversed the punitive damages awarded to Marcia George in George v. ISKCON and remanded the case to the lower court for a new trial.
ISKCON v. Lee
The right of ISKCON members to sell religious books in the public spaces of airport terminals has been solidly established for more than two decades. In February 1990 the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that airport terminals were not a public forum presumed to be available for free speech activities, and that while the distribution of religious literature could not be prohibited, the solicitation of donations could. The court acknowledged that although it had originally intended to rule in ISKCON's favor, an intervening opinion in a United States Supreme Court case involving suburban postal sidewalks "altered public forum" analysis. And so, despite the vast similarities between airport terminals and a "bustling metropolitan boulevard," the court was compelled to uphold the ban on solicitations.
In its opening brief, filed on February 18, ISKCON argued that "modern airport terminals mirror the cities they serve, with spacious pedestrian walkways lined by a surprisingly varied array of shops and services aimed at attracting travelers and nontravelers alike." After examining the history of transportation terminals, and how such areas as wharfs, train stations, and even Ellis Island were frequented by religious colporteurs and missionaries, the brief concluded that "history and experience demonstrate that airline terminals are important and appropriate fora for expression."
ISKCON is being supported in its efforts by an unprecedented array of organizations committed to freedom of speech and religion in public facilities such as airports. A group of major newspaper organizations, led by Gannett Satellite Information Network (U. S. A. Today), The New York Times Company, The Washington Post, and The American Newspaper Publishers Association, is filing "friend of the court" briefs, as are numerous religious, civil rights, and civic organizations, including The American Tract Society, the AFL-CIO, The American Jewish Congress, The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, The Christian Legal Society, The National Association of Evangelicals, The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., The American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, Project Vote, Concerned Women of America, The Free Congress Foundation, and others.
The case is scheduled to be argued in Washington, D. C., on March 25, 1992, and an opinion is expected by the end of June 1992.
George v. ISKCON
In another important victory, the court of appeal in San Diego overturned $2.5 million in punitive damages awarded to Marcia George for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress and ordered a new trial on damages. In a 3-0 ruling, however, the court left intact $485,000 in compensatory damages awarded to Marcia George and her daughter, Robin. With interest, this exceeds $900,000.
In overturning the punitive damages award, which in April 1991 the U. S. Supreme Court had ordered the court of appeal to reconsider, the court stated that evidence of a defendant's net worth absent in this case is an essential element of an award of punitive damages. The court of appeal also observed that the impact a punitive damages award will have on "innocent third parties," such as members of the congregation, donors, and devotees having no involvement with the objectionable conduct, must also be considered. As stated by the court, "On retrial, the only issue for the jury to determine is the amount of punitive damages necessary to punish and deter defendants without financially destroying them."
While ISKCON is pleased that, at least for the time being, it appears that its temple buildings in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, San Diego, and Laguna Beach have been saved, substantial risks remain. The Georges have repeatedly vowed to "fight to the death," or at least until ISKCON's temples are closed down. Marcia George has also promised to contribute a substantial amount of any money she receives to the "anti-cult" movement. Moreover, the case must be retried in Santa Ana, California, a conservative venue that once before revealed its prejudice toward ISKCON by awarding $32.7 million in damages to the Georges. Fortunately, that award was thrown out by a higher court.
ISKCON, therefore, intends to appeal the underlying judgment to the California Supreme Court and, if necessary, the U.S. Supreme Court. While certain mistakes may have been made in assisting Robin George in her decision to become a full-time devotee by helping her hide from her parents, no ill-will or harm was intended. So it's difficult to fathom, not to speak of accept, an award of even $1 million, which would still require the sale of many properties being used in Krsna's service.
By March or April this year the California Supreme Court will decide whether it intends to hear appeals by either ISKCON or the Georges.
ISKCON Office of Legal Affairs