August 23, 2012
The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Monday to overturn a $60,000 jury verdict against a blogger.
Actually, bloggers across the country should be pleased as well, since the ruling will likely impact tort law in other states.
The case, Moore v. Hoff, started with, unsurprisingly, a blog post.
The blog post was from The Adventures of Johnny Northside, which is written by John Hoff.
Hoff, also known as the eponymous “Johnny Northside,” wrote a blog about the University of Minnesota’s hiring of Jerry Moore as part of the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), an outreach program in North Minneapolis (Hoff’s and Moore’s neighborhood).
The post stated that Moore had been fired from his executive director position at another community outreach program for misconduct (a “fistfight”), and that he had also been “involved with a high-profile fraudulent mortgage” on a specific house.
Allegedly, Hoff also requested that an acquaintance email the University and “to try to get Moore terminated.”
I say “allegedly” because the appeals court didn’t conclusively determine whether this actually happened, but there was an email sent by Hoff’s acquaintance to the University essentially trying to get Moore terminated (so the alleged request probably did take place).
Anyhow, Moore was fired the day after the email was sent.
Four days after that, Moore sued Hoff for defamation, intentional interference with contract, and interference with prospective advantage.
The case went to jury trial, and the jury found that the allegations “were not false.”
However, despite the fact that there was no finding of Hoff making any false statements about Moore, the jury still found that Hoff had intentionally interfered with Moore’s employment contract and prospective economic advantage.
To procure his ticket into the appeals court, Hoff moved the court for judgment as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, a new trial.
The district court denied these motions, and Hoff appealed.
The appeals court sided with Hoff.
Hot Doc: Moore v. Hoff
First, it found that the tortious interference claims cannot be based on “true information.”
In other words, someone isn’t liable for economic interference torts for just telling the truth.
Second, the court addressed the district court’s finding that there was “sufficient evidence of Hoff’s conduct that was separate and distinct from the allegedly defamatory statement to support the jury’s verdict.”
This “conduct” was “Hoff’s active involvement in getting Moore fired by contacting leaders at the University” and “threatening to launch a negative public relations campaign if Moore remained in their employment.”
The “sufficient evidence” was testimony from Hoff’s acquaintance (and only from him).
The appeals court found that these allegations were “not supported by any evidence in the record.”
However, the court did find support for the acquaintance’s claims that Hoff’s purpose in having the email sent to the University was to have Moore fired.
The appeals court still ruled that, since this conduct “is too intertwined with Hoff’s constitutionally protected blog post to accurately characterize it as independent tortious conduct,” it, too, was protected (the court cited the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware to support this point).
Hoff’s speech was constitutionally protected because he was writing something he believed to be truthful about a public figure and “that involved an issue of public concern.”
The ruling is very encouraging for bloggers and free speech advocates, and it gives pointers for both sides.
A tip for bloggers: you’re protected as long as you keep your statements truthful and about an issue of public concern.
A tip for public figures: if you don’t want your dirty laundry aired, then don’t soil it in the first place.