Free speech rights, politics and personalities in north Minneapolis lie at the heart of a civil defamation trial opening Monday that pits an ex-community leader against a neighborhood blogger.

Jury selection begins Monday in Hennepin County District Court in a 2009 suit by former Jordan Area Community Council executive director Jerry Moore against blogger John Hoff, known as "Johnny Northside."

Moore sued Hoff, seeking at least $50,000, alleging a blog post Hoff wrote about him was untrue and got him fired from the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center.

Hoff, whose blog "The Adventures of Johnny Northside" garners 300 to 500 readers daily, said the post is true and he has documents to back it up.

"My defense is the truth," said Hoff, who works as a paralegal and truck driver. "I'm not being sued because I defamed anybody. I was sued to shut me up."

Moore's attorney, Jill Clark, declined to comment.

Moore's suit alleges that after he was fired from the Jordan Area Community Council in January 2009, he was hired at the university center. When Hoff found out, he wrote a post lambasting Moore and accusing him of involvement in a "high-profile fraudulent mortgage," one of several that resulted in a 16-year prison sentence for former real estate agent Larry Maxwell. Moore was not 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. Moore was fired the next day.

His suit argues Hoff is not entitled to First Amendment protections provided to journalists because he is biased and allows his blog's anonymous-comments section to be a "defamation zone." Hoff says he is a journalist who focuses on stories in his neighborhood ignored by mainstream media.

On Friday, Hoff won a small battle when Judge Denise Reilly ruled Moore is a "limited-purpose public figure" concerning housing issues in north Minneapolis and raising the bar for Moore to prove "actual malice."

She also threw out two statements Moore alleges were defamatory, including the "What the HELL" post, saying they were opinion and that Hoff cannot be sued for them.

Hoff's attorney, Paul Godfread, said he is surprised the case is going to trial.

"This is a good example of how blogging can be a very useful tool in giving information the public is interested in," he said. "That doesn't always give you fans. Maybe you can make enemies. I think [Hoff] has probably made several, including Jerry Moore."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921