Poster war in `Little Saigon'

TRUONG VAN TRAN only wanted to display a poster of Ho Chi Minh in his southern California video store to make a point, to "open dialogue" about his country nearly 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War.

Despite being vindicated in court, though, he must wonder if the point was worth making.

On Wednesday, an Orange County judge ruled that Mr Tran's poster was protected by his First Amendment right to free expression. That was the good news.

The bad news was that the verdict triggered a mini-riot, landing Mr Tran in hospital after he was punched in the face.

Not only that, he faces an eviction order from his store in Westminster, southern California's very own Little Saigon, and every prospect of a mass boycott by anti-Communist Vietnamese Americans who feel about Ho Chi Minh much the same way Cambodian refugees might feel about Pol Pot.

When Mr Tran first put up the poster last month, hundreds of protesters picketed his store and at one stage he was punched in the head.

A court injunction temporarily ordered him to remove the poster in the interests of keeping the peace, but that order lapsed with Wednesday's ruling.

As he returned to his store to put the poster back up, an angry crowd confronted Mr Tran and knocked him to the ground. "Let him die! Let the Communist die!" the protesters chanted as paramedics arrived to take him to hospital.

The blow to his face did not look serious, a police witness said, but Mr Tran has undergone two heart bypass operations and was said to be suffering from chest pains.

Just about everybody seemed angry with him: the police caught in the middle, for failing to contact them for protection; his landlord, for endangering his property; and even the judge, who ruled in his favour with the most reluctant of concluding statements.

"Mr Tran's display is undisputedly offensive and engenders hatred," Judge Barbara Tam Nomoto Schumann said, even as she upheld his constitutional rights.

In court, Mr Tran said he was not a Communist and merely wanted to open debate. "Nothing is more precious than liberty," read a sign he carried to court.