Local blogger's defamation trial could have broad effect

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2011 - 5:11 PM

It wasn't shaping up to be a good day for Johnny Northside.

It wasn't shaping up to be a good day for Johnny Northside.

While awaiting a hearing on a defamation lawsuit against him Thursday, what he calls "the blogosphere trial of the century," Northside --real name John Hoff -- was served with notice of another defamation suit, this time by a registered sex offender he has written about.

Just another day in the "Adventures of Johnny Northside," the name of the website he uses to chronicle the follies and foibles of neighborhood shenanigans in north Minneapolis. The defamation trial in Hennepin County District Court against Hoff, which begins Monday, is significant enough that it has drawn the interest of a Harvard free-speech group and got him the pro bono services of attorney Paul Godfread.

Hoff's case is a convoluted tale that underscores the advantages (immediacy, connections) and pitfalls (lawsuits, lack of money to fight them) of so-called "citizen journalism." It also is likely to examine the contortionist machinations of North Side politics and nonprofits.

Hoff is being sued by Jerry Moore, the former executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council. Moore says that Hoff's website defamed him five times and that posts written by Hoff or allegations contained in anonymous comments on the site caused the University of Minnesota to fire him.

On his website, Hoff talked about Moore's associations with a major mortgage fraud that sent one man to prison for 16 years. Moore was never charged in the case. He has been sued by victims who claim Moore participated in a real estate deal using the couple's stolen identity. Moore eventually lost his job at JACC and has sued the agency.

He was later hired by the university to look into mortgage foreclosures.

Hoff was so shocked by the hiring that he wrote about it on his website and urged readers to contact the university to complain.

Hoff's money quote:

"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."

Hoff, whose normal voice most resembles a yell, says he was simply reporting neighborhood rumors, many of which were either contained in a criminal complaint against Larry Maxwell, the man convicted of fraud, or in the subsequent lawsuit against Moore. Some of the allegations against Moore were also opinion, which is protected speech, Hoff argues.

Friday, a district judge ruled two of the alleged defamations were factual, not opinion, and thus could be challenged.

Moore's attorney, Jill Clark, makes some interesting arguments against Hoff. One is that he "publishes to the public for the purposes of defamation analysis, but he is not the press for purposes (of) First Amendment or statutory protection" because he doesn't get all sides of an issue. Clark also claims Hoff should be liable for comments of others in the site because he chooses which ones to include, creating a "defamation zone." Furthermore, Clark says, Hoff is a "mouthpiece" for Don Samuels, a Minneapolis City Council member.

"A claimed reporter who is aligned with government or acting as an agent of government is not entitled to First Amendment protection," Clark argues in the complaint.

William McGeveran, a University of Minnesota law professor, however, said the First Amendment is not reserved for the mainstream media -- it protects everybody. The claim Hoff doesn't get protection because he's allied with Samuelson is "pretty far-fetched," he said. Likewise, he said, federal law protects Hoff from comments made by others on his website.

"The law is pretty favorable toward bloggers," said McGeveran. "You don't see too many victories."

Clark's assertion that Moore is not a public figure (a defamation case is more difficult against a public figure) was rejected by the judge Friday, something that didn't surprise McGeveran: "The reason [Hoff] is writing about him is because of his role in public issues."

Hoff's lawyer, Godfread, maintains that Hoff's writings are "his opinion, he doesn't have to be fair and balanced. And John is not taking orders from Don Samuels."

Given Hoff's assertive personality, I don't question Godfread's claim. I asked Hoff whether he could be considered "bombastic."

"The truth is bombastic!" Hoff said.

I asked Hoff if he considered himself a journalist.

"Absolutely!" he said. "A kind of activist-journalist. I'm very localized, and I write out of a concern for my neighborhoods. I'm a fish that eats other fish! Sometimes I see a big fish and I get my teeth into it and then other bigger fish [mainstream media] come and eat it!"

Moore is Hoff's current big fish. But he said the defamation suit has slowed him down and effectively tempered the voice of Johnny Northside, at least temporarily.

"I have to send everything I write past my lawyer!" Hoff said. "The whole purpose of it is harassment!"

If he successfully defends himself against the defamation charges, Hoff promises to publish all he has.

"They are going to have to pay the piper eventually!"

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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