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Dispute between Blaine councilmember, Muslim affairs group hurtles forward with new defamation suit

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The Council on American-Islamic Relations and Blaine’s first Muslim city councilmember are locked in an ongoing, bitter legal dispute that has seen accusations lobbed ranging from defamation to cyberstalking and Islamophobic extremism.

Lori Saroya, a former senior leader with the national Muslim advocacy group and now the first Muslim to serve on Blaine’s city council, sued CAIR in federal court in Minnesota earlier this week — nearly two years after CAIR dismissed its own federal defamation suit against her.

Saroya’s new lawsuit is in response to a January 2022 press release from CAIR’s national board in which the group accused Saroya of using anonymous email and social media accounts to harass CAIR employees and spread “Islamophobic tropes and conspiracy theories” about the organization.

In a civil complaint filed this week, Saroya called CAIR’s accusations of cyberstalking “outrageously false.”

“CAIR did so as part of a concerted effort to blacken her reputation, destroy her credibility, and silence her and others who have raised serious concerns about CAIR’s abuse of women, dishonest practices, and violations of civil rights, among others,” wrote Steven Kerbaugh, an attorney for Saroya.

Saroya was sworn in last year as the first Muslim and woman of color to serve on the city council in Blaine, a northern suburb of the Twin Cities. She previously led CAIR’s Minnesota chapter from 2007 to 2016 and later worked in its national office as a national chapter development director and board member before resigning in 2018.

Her CAIR exit, she said, came after she urged the organization to investigate sex assault and harassment allegations against several leaders, including one who Saroya said “engaged in a pattern of unwelcome and highlight inappropriate conduct” towards her. Saroya has also publicly accused CAIR of discrimination, retaliating against staffers who tried to unionize, using non-disclosure agreements to stifle misconduct allegations, and financial mismanagement.

According to her lawsuit, Saroya was owed back wages after resigning and CAIR offered on multiple occasions to pay her on the condition that she not make negative statements about her former employer.

The civil rights group sued Saroya in 2021, accusing her of waging “a systemic and continuous internet smear campaign designed to damage [CAIR’s] reputation and to cause it severe economic harm.” The lawsuit also said that Saroya “voluntarily resigned” from CAIR after a female staffer accused Saroya of “harassing her to such a degree that the female staffer was contemplating seeking a restraining order.”

Messages were left seeking comment from Saroya.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for CAIR’s national headquarters referred to its original January 2022 press release.

While defending against CAIR’s defamation suit, Saroya sought discovery information regarding CAIR’s donor lists and documents she said would outline an “extensive history of engaging in religious and gender discrimination, sexual misconduct and harassment, and retaliation within the national organization and its local chapters.”

CAIR moved to dismiss its lawsuit in December 2021 after U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered it to file a new complaint specifying defamation allegations that were legally actionable and not outside a statute of limitations.

In its 2022 press release, CAIR’s national board described its decision to drop the suit as a measure taken to “get out of the mud with Lori and her anti-Muslim allies.” CAIR said it was unwilling to let Saroya use the litigation’s discovery process to overwhelm CAIR chapters, drain resources and demand the names of CAIR donors – all information CAIR said “anti-Muslim groups” long wanted to acquire. The group characterized the dispute as Islamophobic extremists dividing and conquering the community from within “by using us, Muslim Americans, against each other.”

Saroya, in this week’s new complaint, said that the press release prompted online harassment and bullying that caused her to fear for her physical safety and stop attending her mosque. She said she was asked about the press release at several job interviews and not offered a job with any employer who mentioned the press release.

She said her opponent in the Blaine city council race that year also used the press release “to attack her and question her suitability for public office.”

Saroya’s lawsuit alleges defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She is seeking at least $75,000 in compensation and an injunction forcing CAIR to retract its press release and remove it from any public spaces.

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