The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned a $60,000 award that an outspoken local blogger had been ordered to pay for a post that got a man fired, ruling that John "Johnny Northside" Hoff cannot be found liable for statements that are true and protected under the First Amendment.
The decision, issued Monday, was a victory for Hoff and free-speech advocates who closely watched the case. It came nearly 18 months after a Hennepin County jury decided that Hoff owed Jerry Moore damages for a scathing post on his well-read neighborhood blog, "The Adventures of Johnny Northside."
"It's a real weight off of me to realize there is common sense at a level beyond what happened in that jury room," said Hoff, a neighborhood activist known for taking on community figures in sometimes bombastic fashion.
After a three-day trial in March 2010, the jury decided that Hoff told the truth in his 2009 blog post when he accused Moore of being "involved in a high-profile fraudulent mortgage" in north Minneapolis. The jury also found that the University of Minnesota fired Moore because of the post and found Hoff responsible for interfering.
Hoff challenged the verdict and moved for a judgment or a new trial, which was denied by District Judge Denise Reilly.
The Appeals Court sided with Hoff, reasoning that he cannot be held liable for interfering with Moore's contract with the U if the information is true, regardless of his motivation for doing so, and ordered the case sent back to district court for judgment in Hoff's favor.
"When a person conveys unflattering and possibly damaging information to another person's employer, it is unlikely that the motivation for conveying that information is born out of affection," Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote. " ... Regardless of the motivation of the messenger, if the information conveyed is true, it is not appropriate for the liability to attach."
Hoff's attorney, Paul Godfread, said he was "relieved and happy" about the 14-page decision, and will be prepared should the state Supreme Court agree to hear the case.
Moore's attorney, Jill Clark, is on medical leave and did not respond to a phone message or e-mail.
The suit stemmed from a feud between Hoff and Moore, former director of the Jordan Area Community Council in north Minneapolis. After Moore was fired from the Community Council, he was hired in 2009 at the U's Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center to study mortgage foreclosures. When Hoff found out about the hiring, he wrote a post accusing Moore of being involved in a fraudulent mortgage, one of several that resulted in a 16-year prison sentence for former real estate agent Larry Maxwell. Moore was not criminally charged in the Maxwell case.
"The collective judgment of decent people in the Jordan neighborhood -- 'decent' being defined as 'not actively involved in mortgage fraud' -- is that Jerry Moore is the last person who should be working on this kind of task, and WHAT THE HELL was the U of M thinking by hiring him," Hoff wrote in the June 21, 2009, post.
Among the comments was a copy of an e-mail sent by another blogger, Don Allen, to the university, urging "swift" corrective action regarding Moore's employment, and suggesting that he would publicize Moore's history if his suggestion wasn't met. Moore was fired the next day.
Moore sued Hoff and Allen in 2009. Allen settled before trial and testified against Hoff, including that Hoff asked him to send the e-mail to the U to try and get Moore terminated. Hoff denied Allen's claims.
In the opinion, Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote that Hoff's blog post, which is protected under the First Amendment, was too intertwined with his other actions to find him liable for Moore's firing without violating his constitutional rights.
"Hoff's blog post is the kind of speech that the First Amendment is designed to protect," she wrote. "He was publishing information about a public figure that he believed was true (and that the jury determined was not false) and that involved an issue of public concern."
Hoff, who continues to blog prolifically, said the lawsuit and verdict were "disconcerting" considering that he told the truth, but it didn't change the way he blogged, other than at times limiting his commentary about the case.
"When something like that happens with a jury, you start to think 'What's gonna happen with the rest of the system? What other crazy legalistic thing is gonna happen?'" he said. "But in a way, it also made me say [screw] it. What are they gonna do, sue me some more?"
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921