Johnny Northside on trial—and citizen journalism, too?


UPDATED 3/8/2011—At the start of the trial of blogger John Hoff (Johnny Northside) on Monday, Judge Denise Reilly advised the seven jurors in the courtroom to avoid reading the newspapers during the trial, and warned that they were not to be swayed by any media reports that might slant the facts one way or another. That’s the law. It’s also somewhat ironic, as media reports are at the heart of this case.

The case gets at the heart of what news reporting really means today. John Hoff maintains that he is a citizen journalist. Jerry Moore, who is suing Hoff, maintains not only that Hoff’s criticism of Moore was defamation, but also that Hoff’s blog is not journalism and is not protected by the First Amendment.

On June 21, 2009, Hoff wrote a blog post about Jerry Moore, who had formerly been Executive Director of the Jordan Area Community Council and who had been fired from that position.

On Monday, Moore’s attorney, Jill Clark, argued that Hoff made false statements about Jerry Moore on his blog, that he waged a campaign to get Jerry Moore fired from his position at the University of Minnesota, and that he incited others to make statements to get him fired. 

Full disclosure: The Johnny Northside blog is occasionally re-published on this website, as are blogs from dozens of other local bloggers.

In his opening remarks, Hoff’s lawyer, Paul Godfread, said he intends to prove that evidence suggests that Hoff’s accusations were true and supported by public record.



First Amendment and blogs

Mainstream MPR blogger Tom Collins notes:

“It’s about this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court said a Kansas preacher and his flock has every right to stand outside the funeral of soldiers killed in war and scream, ‘God hates fags.’ How, in turn, does a court say a guy with a blog — or a sign, for that matter — can’t say the U of M shouldn’t hire someone? That’s the only question, and the only issue.”

(Read the full post here—it’s short, and well worth your time.)

In the post, Hoff wrote that “certain neighborhood movers and shakers” had “consternation followed by seething anger” when they learned of Moore’s new position at the University of Minnesota’s UROC program.  Hoff wrote:  “Repeated and specific evidence in Hennepin County District Court shows Jerry Moore was involved with a high-profile fraudulent mortgage at 1564 Hillside Ave. N.”

The case Hoff was referring to involved Larry Maxwell, who is now serving time in prison for mortgage fraud.  One of the properties involved in the case was 1564 Hillside, and Jerry Moore was named in the case as receiving $5,000 for contractual work.  During that trial, Moore denied having a contract with Maxwell’s company, and was not charged with any crimes. 

Also on Hoff’s blog, an anonymous commenter wrote on his June 21 post: “I suggest we all write to the Board of Regents – they can be reached right here: 

 Be sure to include printed pages of blogs, news articles and other documentation of the type of quality leader that Mr. Moore exemplifies.” 

In her remarks, Clark said that though Hoff didn’t write the anonymous comment, his blog has the capability of approving or not approving comments, and thus is responsible for the content.  Judge Reilly said she would think overnight whether Hoff should be responsible for the comments. 

The trial began at 1:35 p.m., and during the afternoon, two witnesses were called to the stand.  The first was Stevan Jackson, a former member of JACC who has known Moore since the 1980s when Moore went to middle school with his daughter.  Jackson described Moore as an upstanding citizen and that Hoff’s blog attacks anyone who disagrees with City Council member Don Samuels.  (Moore has worked for a candidate who ran against Don Samuels in the past). 

Only two witnesses were called on Monday afternoon, and most of the time was spent on questioning of Hoff by Jill Clark.  She questioned his education, including his journalism training.  Hoff said that he has received journalism training through his English degree from Concordia, learning from a “hippy journalist” when he was a young man, and through his position as a teaching assistant for a Journalism 3101 class at the University of Minnesota. 

Clark questioned him about his knowledge of a long list of tenets of ethical journalism, and asked Hoff, “Do you cover the news?” 

“I cover news…” he replied, “but not only the news.”

Hoff asserted that his post on June 21, 2009 was truthful, and biased only against “wrongdoing.” 

The trial continues tomorrow.  Expected witnesses down the road include Don Samuels, Michael K. Browne (former chair of JACC’s board), Don Allen, and Melanie Michaels, whose husband’s identity was stolen in the Maxwell case.