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Media and Communications Law

Firestorm re $60K Award Against Blogger, Despite Lack of Defamation, May Be Focusing On Wrong Issue

Posted Mar 16, 2011 12:17 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Media observers have been complaining that a recent $60,000 jury verdict over a blog post in Minnesota that linked an individual to a mortgage fraud threatens free speech rights. That's because, although the jury rejected a defamation claim, finding the relevant portion of the post to be truthful, it did award money for tortious interference because the plaintiff was fired from his job due to the post.

Yet the Hennepin County District Court award against "Johnny Northside," known in daily life as John Hoff, may be more revealing about a seeming flaw in the special verdict form than the status of tort law concerning news articles about matters of public concern, according to Benjamin Skjold and Carl Engstrom.

Under Minnesota law, a tortious interference claim requires not only a showing of intentional interference with the plaintiff's economic advantage but a showing that the interference was not proper and hence not justified, the two say in a post today on the Skjold Barthel law firm blog.

But the jury in the case against Hoff was asked on the verdict form only to determine whether there was intentional interference, not that it was not proper, they write.

"Of course, not having seen the factual record, it is possible that there was other conduct or speech by Johnny Northside that may have supported the jury verdict," the post concludes. "To support such a finding, however, the special verdict form needed to outline the clear legal standard, to avoid a jury finding of liability arising from Johnny Northside’s 'proper' interference with Moore’s employment contract."

Earlier coverage:

Star Tribune: "Jury: Blogger Johnny Northside must pay $60,000 to fired community leader"

Minnesota Post: "Johnny Northside: 'Damn right we're appealing' $60,000 judgment"

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