A Hennepin County jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Friday said that a blogger must pay $60,000 in damages to a former community director for a blog post he made in 2009 that resulted in the director's firing by the University of Minnesota. The blogger, Johnny Hoff, linked Jerry Moore to high-profile mortgage fraud in a scathing post on his site, "The Advertures of Johnny Northside" (northside referring to the community of Hennepin County which is located on the northside of Minneapolis).
The jury awarded Moore $35,000 for lost wages and $25,000 for emotional distress, after a nearly two-year legal scuffle between Hoff and Moore. Moore had been fired by the University of Minnesota in June 2009, the day after Hoff's post.
North Minneapolis politicians and personalities, many of whom took the stand, watched the trial closely. So did First Amendment scholars and free-speech advocates who were concerned about the suit's effect on "citizen journalism."
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.
The verdict also surprised U of M law professor William McGeveran, but he wasn't so certain that it will be easily overturned. Appeals courts tend to give a lot of credence to jury verdicts, he said.
Hoff, Moore and their attorneys weren't present when the seven-member jury presented its verdict. Jurors declined to comment afterward.
Moore sued Hoff in June 2009 for at least $50,000. The suit focused on five allegedly biased and defamatory statements on Hoff's blog. Moore's attorney argued that Hoff should be responsible for comments others made on his website because Hoff had created a "defamation zone."
Moore was hired at the U of M's Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center to study mortgage foreclosures. When Hoff found out, he wrote a post accusing Moore of being involved 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.
Hoff said he told the truth and had documentation.
District Judge Denise Reilly threw out four of the five statements, saying they were either opinion or the comments of others on the blog. With respect to the remaining statement, the jury agreed with Clark's claim that Hoff had committed "tortious interference" by meddling with Moore's employment. Clark pointed out to the jury that Hoff, in a later blog post, took partial credit for Moore's firing.
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."
Fifth Ward City Council Member Don Samuels said he was surprised by the verdict and disappointed. Hoff was accused of being Samuels' mouthpiece, and the council member testified during the trial.
Samuels said he hoped the verdict wouldn't discourage Hoff or others from trying, through blogging, to improve life on the North Side.
"People have these pent-up frustrations, and they want the world to know what they're experiencing," Samuels said. "There's a sense that if everyone knew what was happening, things would change."