If you say you’re a guru who has performed thousands of medical miracles around the world, it’s harder to say in court that you’re a regular guy.

That’s one of the takeaways from Ramsey County District Judge Robert Awsumb’s ruling last week that dismissed Mahendra Trivedi’s defamation lawsuit against a St. Paul blogger, Dennis Lang.

Awsumb’s ruling is a welcome victory for the First Amendment, especially for the vast majority of writers who have no institution to protect them from well-funded legal attacks intended to silence them. The judge ruled that Trivedi was a “limited purpose public figure,” which opens him up to public criticism with a stronger shield from lawsuits.

“We’re quite thrilled with the decision,” Lang said Friday, although he’s not celebrating, knowing that Trivedi could appeal it. Nathan Knoernschild, an attorney for Trivedi, declined to comment last week.

Last summer I wrote about how Lang, a freelance writer who claims no special powers, has found himself the target of multiple lawsuits from Trivedi.

The guru, whose organization is based in Nevada, says he can kill cancer cells, improve crop yields and perform other benefits through energy transmissions from his body, and he says 4,000 scientific studies back up his claims.

In 2011, Lang wrote posts questioning Trivedi’s science and reported allegations by former Trivedi employees of sexual misconduct and other misbehavior, according to Awsumb’s ruling. He’s been embroiled in litigation with Trivedi ever since.

In a 2014 suit, Trivedi said that Lang’s postings had damaged the reputation of himself and his corporate entities. But Lang’s attorney, Mark Anfinson, argued the suit should be dismissed because Trivedi had put himself in the public eye.

The courts say that to prevail in defamation lawsuits, public figures have to do more than just show someone wrote or said something false and damaging. They have to show the statements were made with “actual malice,” that the person who made them knew they were false and damaging.

In court papers, Trivedi denied he was a public figure, saying he was virtually unknown when Lang’s blog posts appeared.

Yet Awsumb pointed out that Trivedi admitted to being a public figure in a different lawsuit in Pennsylvania. And the judge cited statements from Trivedi’s employees comparing him to Jesus and Einstein, as well as Trivedi’s claims of having helped 250,000 people all over the world.

“The court does not intend to consider or evaluate the accuracy or validity of Trivedi’s claims or abilities,” the judge wrote. “Nonetheless, the claims of being Jesus-like or Einstein-like are, by their nature, controversial claims likely to be challenged or refuted.”

The judge went on: “These vast claims of his personal powers propelled Trivedi and his entities into the public arena to affirm, debate, question and challenge his assertions, and in so doing, his character and credibility.”

In that case, it was up to Trivedi to prove that Lang knew his statements were false and maliciously published them anyway. Trivedi offered “scant evidence” of that, the judge wrote, and even viewing the facts in the best possible way for Trivedi, Lang was negligent, not malicious.

The ability to criticize public figures is a bedrock of free speech. With some public figures calling for new restrictions on that right, Awsumb’s ruling sends a message that it’s not only big media organizations that will have the court’s backing.

As Lang said: “Someone has to do this sort of stuff.”

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.