Archive for August, 2012

Minnesota Court of Appeals protects a blogger’s right to tell the truth

August 20, 2012

This morning, the Minnesota Court of Appeals released a decision that wisely protects bloggers’ rights to tell the truth, particularly on matters of public concern.

The case, Moore v. Hoff, involved a long-simmering Minneapolis dispute between John Hoff, who writes a blog titled “The Adventures of Johnny Northside,” and Jerry L. Moore, who worked in the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center.

Hoff made a blog post that Moore claimed were defamatory, and in turn Moore claimed that his termination from the university was linked to the allegedly false post.  Moore sued Hoff for defamation but also for interfering with his business relations.  A jury found that the posts were not false but nevertheless found interference with business relations.

But the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict, ruling that a claim based on interference with business relations must involve a falsity, not a truth.  The court further explained that the communication involved matters of public concern in North Minneapolis.

Minnesota online communicators should be heartened by this holding, which affirms bloggers’ places in the media marketplace.

Recent Minnesota Supreme Court decisions are unfriendly to free speech

August 20, 2012

Summer has delivered two sizzling First Amendment decisions from the Minnesota Supreme Court, neither of which is good for online communicators.

The most recent decision came earlier this month.  State v. Crawley involved a Minnesota statute that makes it a crime to knowingly file a false police report.  In a 4-3 decision, the court held that even though the statute criminalizes expression based on its content–something the First Amendment abhors–the law was OK because it could be read to criminalize only defamatory speech, which is not protected by the First Amendment. 

In other words, the Minnesota Supreme Court wrote language into a statute that doesn’t exist.  In a dissent, Justice Stras called the court to the carpet and said the justices should not get in the business of writing statutes.  It is hard to disagree.

The other decision, Tatro v. University of Minnesota, which was released in June, received more mainstream media play than Crawley.  In fact, I talked about it when I was interviewed on Channel 9 last week.

In that case, the court ruled unanimously that the university could discipline a student in its morturary sciences program for making Facebook posts that most people would find to be, quite frankly, tasteless.  The court acknowledged that the university was abridging freedom of speech but justified the ruling because the university had a policy prohibiting certain online communication.

From a free-speech perspective, Tatro is much less problematic than the recent Crawley case.  At least the university had a policy.  As for Crawley, all communicators, online and otherwise, should be concerned that the state’s highest court would rewrite a speech-restrictive statute as they did.

I would not be at all surprised to see the case end up in the United States Supreme Court, as a Minnesota case did 20 years ago.  That case was R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, where the nation’s high court disagreed with the Minnesota Supreme Court over a St. Paul ordinance that criminalized the messages that cross burnings are intended to convey.  Interestingly, the Minnesota Supreme Court based its Crawley decison on R.A.V.

Interesting stuff.  Stay tuned.

Shakopee bar owner prevails in bout against UFC

August 17, 2012

A federal judge ruled this week that a Shakopee bar owner could not be personally liable for allegedly showing an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout in his establishment.

The fight, between Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Keith Jardine, took place back in 2009, but it took until this past Tuesday for the personal-liability issue to work its way through federal court.

Judge Richard H. Kyle ruled that the pay-per-view broadcast’s owner, Joe Hand Promotions, Inc., had not demonstrated that there was “no distinction” between the corporate entity of Kelley’s Bar and the entity’s owner.

Score one for the little guy.  And it’s no small thing.  As Bloomberg News explains, hundreds of such lawsuits are filed each year:

The companies send investigators into bars and restaurants the night of an event to gather photographic or video evidence that the establishment showed it without paying the fee.

The price for watching a pay-per-view boxing event at home might be $50, while businesses typically pay $1,500 to $3,000 or more depending on the size of the venue, said Joseph Gagliardi, president of J&J Sports Productions Inc., which promotes boxing matches.

Showing a boxing match, soccer game or mixed martial arts event without paying the commercial fee could potentially result in a bar or restaurant owner getting hit with a $260,000 bill.

Town with 39 people can ban all businesses, including “adult” ones

August 6, 2012

The latest installment in Minnesota governmental attempts to ban “adult” businesses brings us to the tiny hamlet of Florence, Minnesota, population 39, which has successfully banned all businesses — including adult ones — from its two-tenths of a square mile.

At issue was an establishment called the “Juice Bar,” which shut down after the owner was threatened with criminal prosecution.  The owner sued and claimed the the city could not ban all businesses consistent with the First Amendment.  The theory was that banning businsses left no room for constitutionally protected “adult” communication.

The city contended that the effort to maintain “entirely residential” property was valid because of its interest in staying small and not having much infrastructure.  Last week, federal judge Donovan Frank agreed, stating:

The City has the power to enact its own ordinances and its decision to be zoned entirely residential is unrelated to the suppression of free expression; the incidental restriction on any First Amendment freedoms resulting from the zoning ordinances is no greater than necessary to the furtherance of those interests.

Federal judge says “no go” to East Grand Forks’ attempt to regulate adult media

August 1, 2012

Much of the law that protects the media comes from the world of adult media, and a dispute over an “adult” business ordinance in East Grand Forks, Minn., provides the latest chapter.

Last week, a federal judge took the fairly unusual step of enjoining the city from enforcing an ordinance against “Fantasysrus” because the ordinance potentially infringes on First Amendment rights. 

Judge John Tunheim ruled that the ordinance was too vague to be enforced because it did not define “adult uses” and permitted arbitrary enforcement.  As the judge explained:

The East Grand Forks city ordinance does not define “sexually oriented” and provides no guidance as to how much of the merchandise or activity must be sexually explicit or an “adult use” to trigger the ordinance. Consequently, an art gallery with some paintings of nudes, a dance studio that teaches belly dancing, a sauna that allowed nudity at certain times, or a bookstore selling Fifty Shades of Gray could be “sexually oriented” or not, depending on the discretion of the city official.

Judge Tunheim also ruled that because the ordinance provided no framework for differentiating between a “sexually oriented store” and a “sexually oriented bookshop,” the city got too much discretion over who could operate a business and who could not.

The decision is yet another reminder that the government has limited power to restrict not only the freedom of expression, but the freedom to purchase others’ expression—even when the expression has more to do with what goes on behind closed doors.