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Minnesota Court of Appeals: Johnny Northside blog IS protected by First Amendment
It turns out that you can’t get sued for telling the truth after all.
Just when you think that humanity is doomed, something happens to make you believe that we may possibly still have a chance. I, along with many others, was shocked in March of 2011 when a jury slapped $60,000 in damages on blogger John Hoff (aka Johnny Northside) for two counts of tortious interference with Jerry Moore’s contract at the University of Minnesota — even as they dismissed a defamation claim because what Hoff wrote on his blog was “not false.” (He wrote that Jerry Moore was “involved” in a mortgage fraud case.) Then, when Judge Denise Reilly failed to throw the case out a year ago, I just couldn’t believe it. How could you be sued for interfering with someone’s contract when the basis for your interference is making a true statement?
Well, advocates for free speech can breathe a sigh of relief, because the Minnesota Court of Appeals has reversed the jury’s decision, saying that indeed Hoff can’t be sued for saying true things. The court also found that there wasn’t evidence that there was anything besides Hoff's protected speech that interfered with Moore’s contract. You can read more about it in Abby Simmons’ report in the Star Tribune here, and Bob Collins’ analysis here, and on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. You can also read the court’s opinion here, and it is pretty concise and easy to understand. Here’s some background on the appeals case that I wrote last spring.
Paul Godfread, Hoff’s attorney, said, “We’re happy it came out the way it did. We’re relieved.” According to Godfread, Moore’s angle was that there were other actions besides Hoff’s protected speech that made up the tortious interference. The only thing Moore’s side came up with, though, was an email by Don Allen, which paralleled the information stated in Hoff’s blog. “The record was pretty thin,” Godfread said.
The ruling will be significant, according to Godfread, because it sets the precedent that you can’t use tortious interference to get around the rules on defamation cases. “They essentially used tortious interference to get a verdict when there wasn’t defamation,” he said. “There wasn’t anything except blogging and discussing what the same topic was about.”
Here's what the Minnesota Court of Appeals wrote:
Because truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation, truth should also be a defense to a claim for tortious interference with a contract arising out of an allegedly defamatory statement. ...
Hoff’s blog post is the kind of speech that the First Amendment is designed to protect. He was publishing information about a public figure that he believed was true (and that the jury determined was not false) and that involved an issue of public concern. Attaching liability to this speech would infringe on Hoff’s First Amendment rights.
While many people assured John Hoff that the appeals court would rule in his favor, today was a great relief for him, Hoff said. He’s continued to blog since the ruling, and plans to continue blogging in the future. He also said that since his victory, he wants to extend a call to action for Pussy Riot, the punk rock group that has been sent to prison in Russia for speaking out. “I hope very much people pay attention to their plight,” he said.
Jerry Moore’s attorney, Jill Clark, did not respond to an email in time for publication of this article. A voicemail at her office states “Jill Clark is not available and is expected to be not available for an extended period of time.” Jill Clark ran for the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court this year, but was not among the top two vote-getters in the August 14 primary election, so her name will not appear on the ballot. She has also faced some legal trouble herself, as reported on Johnny Northside.