Court Oks Anti-Cult Jury Award

SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court has reaffirmed $1.09 million in damages against an anti-cult organization for its role in trying to "deprogram" a Washington state teenager, despite a warning from seven judges that free speech was under attack.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied reconsideration Wednesday of a panel's 2-1 decision in April upholding damages against the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). Without announcing the exact vote, the court said a request for a rehearing had failed to gain a majority among its 21 active judges.

Writing for the seven dissenters, Judge Alex Kozinski said, "We have taken a great leap backwards in the protection of First Amendment freedoms."

He said the CAN did not employ the deprogrammer or approve his actions and was bankrupted by the ruling.

The ruling could be appealed to the Supreme Court.

A jury found CAN responsible for a volunteer's actions in referring a Kirkland woman to a deprogrammer. CAN, based in Illinois, was formed to advise families who feared their loved ones were involved with cults.

The woman, Kathy Tonkin, joined the Life Tabernacle Church with her six children in 1991. She left two years later, but her three oldest sons wanted to stay.

Using a local hotline, Tonkin contacted Shirley Landa, a volunteer who was CAN's Washington state contact and was also affiliated with other cult-related organizations. She referred Tonkin to Rick Ross, whose deprogramming practices had been shown on CBS' "48 Hours."

Ross deprogrammed two of Tonkin's sons, aged 16 and 13, but the oldest son, Jason Scott, 18, resisted, even after being abducted and held captive for five days, the court said.

Ross, of Phoenix, was acquitted by a jury of a criminal charge of unlawful imprisonment. But in a civil-damage suit, a federal jury awarded Scott $4.875 million in damages against Ross, his associates and CAN in 1995. The verdict included $87,500 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages against CAN.

In the April ruling, the appeals court said the jury was entitled to find that Landa, who had referred Scott's mother to Ross, was acting on CAN's behalf.

CAN functioned through its local contact people and, according to its president, authorized them to tell the public they were acting on the organization's behalf, the court said.