19 March 2011

Are Bloggers Immune Against Damages If They Say The Truth?

bloggers for free speachphoto © 2006 Hanan Cohen | more info (via: Wylio)

It all started this Tuesday while I was reading my daily Slashdot newsletter. I was about to close the tab displaying the headlines, when a single textline caught my attention.
It read : Blogger Fined $60K For Telling the Truth .
What I initially thought was an absurd story turned out to be a verdict delivered by a jury at the Hennepin County District Court!
But let me first present you with

The Facts

John Hoff, a blogger who maintains The Adventures of Johnny Northside, came across a mortgage fraud in which the former community council director Jerry Moore was involved.
Hoff wrote on his weblog that he had  discovered that, Moore whose malpractice had already cost him his job at the community council, had once again been fired by his then current employer. As a consequence, Moore sued Hoff  claiming damages for lost wages and emotional distress. Albeit that the jury found that Hoff’s blog post was true, it held  that Hoff intentionally interfered with Moore’ employment contract thereby causing Moore emotional distress and was thus making him liable to pay 60.000 USD (see Sheila Regan’s court notes and the Hennepin County District Court Jury Verdict that John Hoff emailed me upon my request).

Why the jury erred

No doubt, this jury verdict is just outrageous.

I guess that Moore chose to pursue the course of interference with an employment contract and emotional distress, because he would have failed to produce evidence of Hoff’s actual malice had he opted to sue for libel.

But even if Hoff was trying to get Moore fired, people are constitutionally entitled to speak the truth about others, even with such an objective (The Volokh Conspiracy delivers a profound explanation why). Provided that the jury was instructed of this, its judgment is simply wrong.

As regards emotional distress, the US Supreme Court held in Hustler v. Falwell that the elements usually required to demonstrate that tort has occurred, are not sufficient in cases involving public figures.
In Snyder v. Phelps the Supreme Court went even further, holding that the obvious and hatred-motivated disturbance of a military funeral did not qualify to inflict emotional distress among the mourners, since it dealt with issues of public concern and was hence protected by the First Amendment.

In light of the quoted decisions, the judgment of the Hennepin’s jury is not only wrong; it is pathetic.
From what I read, John Hoff is going to appeal the decision against him and I believe he has a fair chance of getting it overturned.

Why I blog on this

I blog on this simply because the freedom of expression and the freedom to access information represent our fundamental rights and we must protect them by all means.
What would be the alternative? Any wrongdoer discovered by bloggers or journalists would then be able to muzzle and gag them by suing them for, say, emotional distress? Perish the thought!

Therefore, I expect the higher judicial instances in the US to provide for bloggers’ immunity against damages, provided, of course, they tell the truth.


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Comments (2)

  1. 26 March 2011
    Spolly said...

    In my opinion it’s not that easy. Sometimes it’s better to be silent… ;-(

  2. 26 March 2011
    Emil A. Georgiev said...

    The problem here is that Johny Northside did communicate facts that proved to be the truth.
    A punishment for saying the truth is just very, very problematic in a democracy…

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