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Truthful statement can't give rise to tort claims, SPJ argues

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A blogger’s request to overturn a jury verdict ordering him to pay $60,000 in damages for truthful comments that got…

A blogger’s request to overturn a jury verdict ordering him to pay $60,000 in damages for truthful comments that got an ex-community leader fired has attracted media support. The Minnesota Pro Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists has filed a brief arguing that the judgment should not stand.

A Hennepin County jury found earlier this month that an online statement by John Hoff, who blogs under the pseudonym Johnny Northside, about former neighborhood official Jerry Moore was not false. Nonetheless, the jury also decided that Hoff intentionally interfered with Moore’s employment contract with the University of Minnesota, awarding him $35,000 for loss of contractual benefits and $25,000 for “emotional distress or actual harm to reputation,” according to a friend-of-the-court brief the Minnesota SPJ filed in Moore v. Hoff.

The jury verdict cannot stand because Minnesota law rejects attempts by plaintiffs to do an end-run around defamation law’s strict requirements by couching what is essentially a defamation claim as another tort cause of action, including interference with employment contracts, the brief argues. Moreover, providing truthful information alone cannot give rise to a tortious interference claim, according to the filing.

Moore, after being fired as director of the Jordan Area Community Council in January 2009, was hired at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center to study mortgage foreclosures. The Jordan Area Community Council is a network of residents working to improve the Jordan neighborhood in north Minneapolis. Hoff’s blog, titled "The Adventures of Johnny Northside," seeks “to help with a process of turning a rapidly revitalizing neighborhood [north Minneapolis] into something approaching Urban Utopia” and attracts about 300 to 500 visitors daily.

In June 2009, when Hoff learned of Moore’s employment at the university, he wrote a post accusing Moore of being involved in a “high-profile fraudulent mortgage.” The university fired Moore the next day. Hoff said he had documentation to prove that the statement was true.

The jury agreed with Hoff, finding that his statement about Moore’s involvement in the fraudulent mortgage was true and, thus, not defamatory. However, the panel also concluded that the statement tortiously interfered with Moore’s subsequent employment at the university, a finding that the law does not support, according to the Minnesota SPJ’s brief.

“Courts do not allow plaintiffs to evade the requirements of libel law by presenting their claims under a different legal label. 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,” the brief says.

Citing the 1988 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, the brief argues that when a tort claim is brought as a result of constitutionally protected speech, the claim is subject to the same First Amendment requirements that govern actions for defamation, including the requirement that a statement must be false to be actionable.

In Falwell, a nationally known minister and commentator on politics and public affairs unsuccessfully tried to evade defamation law’s falsity requirement, and the higher standard by which public figures most prove it, by bringing a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against the publishers of a caustic parody about him.

The Minnesota SPJ got involved in this case, according to its brief, because a ruling on the issue could affect its members, whose work centers on written and broadcast journalism, and increasingly appears online.

“A legal rule that exposes journalists and anyone else who communicates on the internet [sic] to risks of liability for tortious interference based on truthful statements or on a different standard than defamation could impair the free flow of information and vigorous debate on public issues,” the brief says.