Johnny Northside's fine overturned; blogger calls court decision a "complete and total victory"

A screenshot of the "complete and total victory" post on "Johnny Northside" after news of the verdict. At right, the Bill of Rights, where you can juuust make out the wording of the First Amendment.
A screenshot of the "complete and total victory" post on "Johnny Northside" after news of the verdict. At right, the Bill of Rights, where you can juuust make out the wording of the First Amendment.
"Johnny Northside" | Wikipedia

- John Hoff fined $60k for blogging
- Best Local Blog 2011: The Adventures of Johnny Northside
- Jerry Moore has a controversial past (COVER)

This morning, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that local blogger John "Johnny Northside" Hoff is off the hook for $60,000 in damages to the subject of one of his posts. "Hoff's blog post is the kind of speech that the First Amendment is designed to protect," Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote in the opinion.

The reversal comes a year and a half after a Hennepin County jury found Hoff liable, a decision that ruffled feathers among free-speech defenders.

In June 2009, Hoff wrote on his north Mpls-focused blog, "The Adventures of Johnny Northside," that Jerry Moore, then employed by the U to study mortgage foreclosures, had himself been involved with shady mortgages. The day after Hoff's post, Moore was fired.

Moore sued Hoff for defamation, and last March, the trial jury found that Hoff's post was true -- a conclusion that would ordinarily be enough to toss out a defamation suit involving a public figure like Moore. But, there were also questions about whether Hoff engaged with the U to argue for Moore's termination, and the jury reasoned that these actions, to whatever extent they occurred, violated Moore's employment contract. As such, their verdict was that "Johnny Northside" owed Moore $60,000 in damages.

As we wrote at the time, "Even though John Hoff exercised his First Amendment rights, and didn't defame Jerry Moore in the process, Moore walked away with a $60,000 settlement."

Today, the Appeals Court called hogwash. On the question of whether Hoff (in effect) lobbied the U to get Moore fired, Judge Halbrooks wrote, "evidence of interference by Hoff separate and distinct from his blog post... is insufficient."

The opinion goes on to call any outside communication "too intertwined with Hoff's constitutionally protected blog post" to distinguish between them. For the Appeals Court, the issue at hand here was Hoff's First Amendment rights, and the information that he reported was factual. Because of this, the opinion continues, "Regardless of the motivation of the messenger, if the information conveyed is true, it is not appropriate for liability to attach."

To further spotlight this case as a textbook free speech issue, Halbrooks broke it down into its parts. Hoff "was publishing information about a public figure that he believed was true (and that the jury determined was not false)," she wrote, "and that involved an issue of public concern."

Crowing over his victory on his blog, Hoff writes that today's verdict is a "complete and total victory," and a "vindication of this blog in the 'Blogosphere Trial of the Century:'"

We won. No remand back to lower court, no new trial, just complete and total victory. In fact, the opinion was PUBLISHED and so it will be in the books as something that can be cited as precedent in future situations that may arise when bloggers make truthful statements and, as a result, as one example, somebody who is involved in a mortgage fraud at 1564 Hillside Ave. N. loses his job at the University of Minnesota doing research involving mortgages.

The case still may work its way up one more rung in the legal ladder, to the state Supremes. But for now, the Appeals Court's verdict is, as MinnPost's David Brauer tweets, an "excellent decision for citizens, not just journos. (Since journo/blogger/writer distinction immaterial)."

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