"...[S]peech does not lose its protection – as the jury in Hoff's case seemed to conclude – merely because it has an effect on those it criticizes. To conclude otherwise would give true speech less protection than false speech since it is more likely to do harm."
$60,000 Ruling Against Truthful Blogger Tests Limits of the First Amendment
September 12th, 2011
One of the first things I learned as a journalist, and later again as a media lawyer, was that under the First Amendment the "truth" could not be subject to a viable defamation claim. True statements are simply constitutionally immune and plaintiffs cannot sidestep all of the common law and constitutional protections for true speech through creative pleadings that would merely re-label defamation as another cause of action. The Supreme Court has flatly held as much in a long line of cases going as far back as the 1980s.
Enter then the seemingly bizarro Minnesota case of Moore v. Allen.
In a recent ruling, the Minnesota District Court in that case refused to set aside a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff $60,000 in damages against a blogger who posted truthful information about him that contributed to his losing his job. In other words, although the jury found the statement at issue was truthful and therefore not defamatory, they still ruled in favor of the plaintiff under a claim of "tortuous interference with employment contracts." This ruling seems on its face to be a flagrant violation of a constitutional precept and a prime candidate for reversal on First Amendment grounds. Yet this strange decision out of Hennepin County, Minnesota, merits a closer look.
According to public court filings and news reports, Jerry Moore sued John Hoff and six others in June 2009 for five allegedly biased and defamatory statements on Hoff's blog "The Adventures of Johnny Northside." The blog seeks "to help with a process of turning a rapidly revitalizing neighborhood into something approaching Urban Utopia" and is said to attract about 300 to 500 visitors daily.
Mr. Moore claimed in case filings, reported as well in various news reports, that he had lost his job at the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center, where he was hired to study mortgage foreclosures, a day after Mr. Hoff posted statements that claimed Moore had been involved in "a high-profile fraudulent mortgage."
According to the Minnesota Star Tribune, District Judge Denise Reilly dismissed four out of the five statements saying that they were either non-actionable opinion or comments authored by others on the blog, which are not the blogger's liability. With respect to the remaining statement, the jury found that it was true but still an unlawful interference with Moore's employment at the university. They awarded the plaintiff $35,000 for lost wages and $25,000 for emotional distress. The court subsequently rejected a motion by the defendant to set aside the jury verdict or start a new trial, noting that it found "direct and circumstantial evidence adduced at trial ‘supports the findings of the jury and can be reconciled.'"
This is not the first time where a court has permitted liability for truthful speech. See e.g., Johnson v. Johnson, 654 A.2d 1212 (R.I. 1995)(man calling former wife a "whore"; court held statement was true but actionable); Noonan v. Staples, Inc., 556 F.3d 20, 26 (1st Cir. 2008)("Massachusetts law . . . recognizes a narrow exception to [the otherwise absolute] defense [of truth]; the truth or falsity of the statement is material, and the libel action may proceed, if the plaintiff can show that the defendant acted with ‘actual malice [in the constitutional sense of entertaining serious doubts as to truth] in publishing the statement."); Young v. First Bank of Bellevue, 516 N.W.2d 256 (1994)(dicta)(truth not an absolute defense under Nebraska statute, permitting liability for true defamatory statements made in malice). Yet, the fact that this case has some company, if few and far between, does not make it any less constitutionally suspect.
As forcefully argued in its amicus brief to the court, the Minnesota Pro Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists pointed out that the case appears to be a textbook example of a plaintiff making an end run around a prohibited lawsuit by re-labeling the same tort under a different name. Citing to the 1988 Supreme Court case Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 57 (1988), the brief argued that "injuries to reputation are defamation-type damages, for which plaintiffs must prove the elements of a defamation claim regardless of how the claim is labeled." Such requirements did not seem to be imposed by the Minnesota court, according to filings.
Moreover, speech does not lose its protection – as the jury in Hoff's case seemed to conclude – merely because it has an effect on those it criticizes. To conclude otherwise would give true speech less protection than false speech since it is more likely to do harm...
Another defamation case in Minnesota: The WWII Vet vs. The Doctor
Dr. David McKee v. Dennis Laurion
After the District Court dismissed defamation charges, the plaintiff appealed seeking separate adjudication of interference with business.
I wonder how the results of Moore v Allen will compare to the results of McKee v Laurion.