Dangerous Free Speech Ruling: Blogger Has To Pay In Libel Case… Despite Telling The Truth

from the going-to-be-overturned dept

In a ruling that almost certainly will get overturned, a blogger who was sued for libel, and showed that he had spoken truthfully, was still ordered to pay $60,000, in a highly questionable ruling that routed around basic defamation law by claiming the amount ($35,000 for lost wages and $25,000 for “emotional distress”) was due to “tortious interference” with employment. The case involved a blogger named John Hoff, who wrote a scathing blog post about Jerry Moore who was apparently involved in a high-profile mortgage fraud. That blog post generated attention and complaints to the University of Minnesota, who had recently hired Moore. The University fired Moore the next day. The lawsuit tried a few claims to get around various protections, including claiming that Hoff was liable for comments made by users by creating a “defamation zone.” Thankfully, the court didn’t buy into that (a ruling that never would have survived a Section 230 challenge), but apparently did buy into this crazy tortious interference claim. If telling the truth about someone gets them fired, then the issue should never be about the person who told the truth, but the person who did whatever they did to make the truth about them a fireable offense. There’s an expectation that Hoff will appeal, and many believe this will be overturned on First Amendment grounds. That seems likely, but it’s still a huge process, and in the meantime, this awful ruling stands.

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Comments on “Dangerous Free Speech Ruling: Blogger Has To Pay In Libel Case… Despite Telling The Truth”

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28 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Best and most important lines in the linked article:

Don Allen was originally named as a co-defendant because he sent a letter to the U of M urging Moore’s termination, then copied the letter to Hoff’s blog. Before the case went to trial, he settled with Moore and testified against Hoff. Allen, who operates his own blog, “The Independent Business News Network,” applauded the verdict.

“It’s unfortunate for all bloggers, but you have to have some sense of responsibility,” he said. “You have to attack the issues, not the individuals.”

He has it right.

Wiggs (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Wait, what?

So this Dan Allen guy originally was in full agreement with Hoff. Enough so that he took the time and wrote a letter to U of M telling them that they should terminate the plaintiff based on the allegations, AND copied Hoff’s blog on it, involving himself in the process and in the “libel”.

Then he settles with the plaintiff and does a complete-180 on his own positions, even going so far as to testify AGAINST the blogger?

How does he “have it right”? He was originally *helping* to “attack” the individual! Where was his “sense of responsibility” when he was sending off letters to U of M and copying the blog?

Makes me wonder what that settlement entailed. Hope he feels good selling out his right to free speech.

In my opinion, this is the much more enlightening quote in that article:

Jane Kirtley, a U of M professor of media law and ethics, called the lawsuit an example of “trash torts,” in which someone unable to sue for libel, which by definition involves falsity, reaches for another legal claim. She predicted the verdict will be overturned.

“This is based on expression, and expression enjoys First Amendment protection,” Kirtley said. Just last week, she said, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected the Westboro Baptist Church’s antigay protests at military funerals.

“I find it really hard to believe that there was a degree of emotional distress caused by this reporting that outstrips that suffered by [a Marine’s] family,” Kirtley said.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This is Nuts

I agree – to succeed with the tortious interference claim, the fact-finder must find (among other things) that the defendant intentionally and improperly interfered with a contractual relation. Courts have said that improper means are those that are independently wrongful such as threats or violence… Harman v. Heartland Food Co., 614 N.W.2d 236. I can’t find the underlying wrongful conduct here. It doesn?t even seem like he was encouraging the University to breach, only criticizing the hiring choice.

Anonymous Coward says:

i find it hard to believe his employment was terminated solely based on these 2 people’s ‘interference’. i’m an employee at the UofM, an IT. generally, you can terminate anyone’s employment within usually a year for any reason other than something covered under EEOC. so maybe they didn’t like the cut of his jib for whatever reason, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on what this blog post said. the strib article never mentions the level of interference, just that a letter was written. was it read? who read it? and was that letter and blog post were cited as reasons for termination? (usually they have you say things like “you’re just not a good fit for us.”)

spencermatthewp says:

Truth is not a defense for libel

I don’t know what decision, but I remember hearing some time ago that a court decided that truth is not a defense for libel. In other words using facts for the sole purpose of destroying the lively-hood or reputation of another person is still libel. Essentially it goes to intent.

My guess is that the blogger exposed this information with the intent of destroying this person’s career. That is, after all, how a modern journalist makes a name for his or her self. The more prominent the member of society the journalist takes down, the more advancement he or she will make.

It would be interesting to see the facts of the case rather than simply saying this is a free speech issue. Yes, a person can say what ever you want, when ever he or she wants, where ever he or she wants. And yes a person should be able to do so. However, no one should be allowed to willfully and intentionally destroy another person’s life. With great power comes great responsibility.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Truth is not a defense for libel

Are you sure that case wasn’t in the UK? Or awarding damages under a common law theory related to defamation? In the US , truth is a defense to defamation-intent is only relevant to prove actual malice, and that is only a factor once someone’s “fame” has been determined.

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