Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Minn. Blogger 'Johnny Northside' on Wrong Side of Jury Verdict

Seal of Hennepin County, MinnesotaImage via Wikipedia"Truth is a defense to libel" is a legal truism that may no longer embolden citizen journalist bloggers who last week saw a seven-member Hennepin County (Minn.) Civil Court jury sock John Hoff of The Adventures of Johnny Northside blog with a $60,000 judgment.

In the Fourth Judicial District of Minnesota case, Jerry Moore v. Don Allen & John Hoff (Case No. 27-cv-09-17778), the plaintiff was awarded damages of $35,000 for lost wages and $25,000 for emotional distress in his tortious interference with contract claim, according to an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Moore, the former director of the Jordan Area Community Council, sued Hoff in June 2009, blaming the blogger for his termination by the University of Minnesota, where Moore was hired to study mortgage foreclosure economics by the university's Urban Research & Outreach/Engagement Center. Don Allen was dropped from the case as a defendant after he and Moore reached a settlement and later testified at trial against Hoff.

Moore alleged Hoff,  blogging as his alter ego Johnny Northside, created a "defamation zone" through five posts, one of which alleged Moore was involved in a "high-profile fraudulent mortgage" out of which former realtor Larry Maxwell was convicted and sentenced to a 16-year prison term.  Moore was not a defendant in the Maxwell case. Moore was fired the day after a Hoff blog post about him appeared.

District Judge Denise D. Reilly tossed four of the five purportedly libelous posts as not being susceptible to a defamatory meaning, but rather, constituting Hoff's opinion. The jury, however, found that Hoff interfered with Moore's employment relationship with UM that resulted in Moore's ouster. Hoff allegedly took credit for Moore's dismissal in a subsequent post.

Hoff, who alleged his post was truthful and that he had the documentation to back his linking of the plaintiff to the mortgage debacle, is expected to appeal the verdict. Some media law experts and court watchers fret that the verdict against Hoff could have a chilling effect on citizen journalism and believe the decision will be overturned on First Amendment grounds, while others cite appellate courts' deference toward jury verdicts.

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