My Sunday column explored an intra-party squabble among Republicans that resulted in a $600 fine for lying to Bonn Clayton of Chanhassen. I learned about the case from an op-ed published last month by Stephen Carter, a Yale Law School professor.
Bob Franklin, a retired Star Tribune editor and faithful reader, was inspired by Carter's op-ed to send in his own essay listing other laws that criminalize lying in Minnesota, most notably the rarely-used law against defaming someone. Here is an excerpt from Franklin's piece:
Minnesota’s criminal defamation law... makes it a crime in certain circumstances to communicate "anything [false] which exposes a person or a group, class or association to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation or disgrace in society, or injury to business or occupation." There’s an exception for "fair comment made in good faith" about matters "of public concern."
The law apparently hadn’t been used in 60-some years when a Worthington man falsely complained to a state licensing board in 1998 that his neighbor, a dentist, had been practicing while drunk. Defamation cases commonly are brought by the injured person (and the dentist did get an out-of-court settlement). But in this case, a county attorney brought a criminal defamation charge against the complainant.
He was convicted and fined $1,530, but a judge overturned that result, saying the possibility of reprisal would have a “chilling effect” on complaints that should be investigated by quasi-judicial agencies.
The law remains on the books.
UPDATE: I just learned, via the Minnesota Litigator blog, that the there's a proposal this session from Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, to amend the dusty criminal defamation statute by adding the word "false," presumably because it's absurd (and unconstitutional) to stop someone from telling the truth if it happens to make someone look bad. That change apparently justifies removing a provision in which the alleged defamer could assert the information "justifiable ends..." The attorney behind Minnesota Litigator, Seth Leventhal, thinks the change makes the bar for criminal defamation too high, by requiring proof that defamers knew what they were saying was false.