Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed a defamation claim finding that First Amendment protections apply to non-media speakers in defamation actions when the speech at issue concerns a matter of public interest. Kurt Maethner brought a defamation and negligence claim against his former wife Jaquelyn Jorud, and Someplace Safe, Inc., an advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence. Following their divorce, Jorud received assistance from Someplace Safe, became the organization’s spokesperson, and publicly claimed offline and on Facebook that she was a survivor of domestic violence. Jorud did not report domestic abuse issues during her marriage with Maethner. The ex-husband argued that she defamed him and Someplace Safe was negligent by failing to investigate the veracity of Jorud’s statements. The Minnesota Supreme Court held that although Jorud’s statements could be considered defamatory, First Amendment protections could still apply. The Court also held that Someplace Safe acted reasonably in giving Jorud a platform and did not have a duty to investigate the veracity of her statements.
Maethner and Jorud were married in 1995, separated in 2008 and divorced in 2010. During the separation and divorce proceedings, Jorud was a client of Someplace Safe, a nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic violence. During their marriage, Jorud never sought protection from or pressed charges against Maethner for domestic violence. The 2010 divorce agreement also did not reference domestic violence. After the divorce, Jorud kept “Maethner” as her legal surname, and added Jorud after she remarried.
Following the divorce, Jorud began volunteering with Someplace Safe and speaking at events about her experience as a survivor of domestic violence. On October 4, 2013, she posted on her Facebook page, “By God’s grace I am a survivor. Because of His love I am living with many blessings today! Domestic violence is real.” In 2014, Someplace Safe presented Jorud with a “Survivor Award” at its anniversary fundraising banquet. A press release about the event noted that “Jacki Maethner Jorud” was the recipient of the award. At the banquet, Jorud received an award certificate which recognized her for “empowering [herself] and inspiring others to stand against violence.” Someplace Safe and Jorud posted pictures of her holding the certificate on Facebook. Someplace Safe has over 1,000 followers on Facebook.
In the fall of 2014, Jorud also wrote a one-page article for Someplace Safe’s newsletter that was signed “Jacki Maethner Jorud.” In the article she said, “I was asked to write a short article celebrating the fact of not just surviving domestic violence, but thriving through recovery”, “I don’t know if there will ever be a time when I can be certain I am no longer being stalked and watched”, I didn’t want to live in a constant state of fear.” The article did not mention Maethner by name nor stated that Jorud experienced domestic violence during her previous marriage.
In February 2015, Jorud wrote on her Facebook page, “I, Jacki Maethner, will continue to speak out and educate against domestic violence. Neither the uncomfortableness of the subject, nor intimidation from others will keep me from speaking out. I am not just a survivor. I have learned to thrive in a life rich with blessings of LOVE, RESPECT, KINDNESS and EQUALITY.”
Maethner sued Someplace Safe and Jorud for defamation. He alleged that Someplace Safe defamed him by presenting Jorud with the Survivor Award, publicizing the award in its press release and on Facebook, and publishing Jorud’s article in its newsletter. He also alleged that Jorud defamed him by posting pictures and statements on Facebook that identified her as a survivor of domestic violence, as well as writing the article for Someplace Safe’s newsletter. Although Maethner was never identified by name, he argued that a reasonable person in his community would understand the statements to refer to him because his last name was uncommon and his marriage to Jorud was well known in the community. He also alleged that Someplace Safe was negligent in publishing the newsletter article without investigating the accuracy of Jorud’s statements. He requested damages for emotional harm and defamation.
A district court granted a summary judgment to Someplace Safe and Jorud on the defamation claim, concluding that (1) the statements were protected by qualified privilege, and Maethner failed to establish malice, (2) Maethner failed to show proof of actual damages. The court also granted summary judgment to Someplace Safe on the negligence claim, concluding that the organization did not have a duty to investigate Jorud’s statements. Maethner appealed.
An appellate court reversed and remanded the district court’s judgment. It held that qualified privilege (immunity from a lawsuit) did not apply to the allegedly defamatory statements because they were made to raise funds for Someplace Safe and not to protect Jorud or to report a crime. Further, the appellate court concluded that Someplace Safe owed a duty to exercise reasonable care before publishing Jorud’s statements, and the breach of said duty was to be determined by a jury.
Someplace Safe appealed.
First, the Supreme Court of Minnesota outlined general defamation principles. To succeed in a defamation claim, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant made:
Absolute and qualified privileges could defeat a defamation claim. However, qualified privilege could be overcome if the plaintiff proves that the defendant made the statement from malice, meaning it was made “from ill will and improper motives, or causelessly and wantonly for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff.” (p.8) To avoid chilling protected speech, the US Supreme Court, held that “public figures and public officials must meet a higher standard when challenging defamatory statements, requiring proof of actual malice.” (p. 8 citing New York Times Co. v Sullivan). Unlike common law malice, actual malice requires proof that a statement was made with the knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
After listing the general principles, the Minnesota Supreme Court turned to issues at the heart of this lawsuit. It first considered the issue of damages, followed by a review of whether Someplace Safe had a duty to investigate the truthfulness of Jorud’s statements before publishing them.
Has Maethner Suffered Damages?
Maethner failed to provide information on how the allegedly defamatory statements harmed his reputation. He testified that he did not know if the statements impacted his reputation and could not name anyone who considered less of him due to the statements. Reputational harm is a prerequisite in a common law defamation, and Maethner’s claim thus fails, unless he can recover “presumed damages.” Common law allows harm to reputation to be presumed as the result of statements that are defamatory per se. While such statements are virtually certain to cause harm, injury from them is hard to prove. Statements recognized as defamatory per se include “false accusations of committing a crime and false statement about a person’s business, trade, or professional conduct.” (p. 10) The Court agreed that Maethner could claim that some statements in question could paint him as someone who committed domestic assault.
After establishing that the statements could be construed as involving criminal behavior, the Court considered if they enjoyed First Amendment protection. The district court dismissed Maethner’s claim on the basis of Richie v Paramount Pictures Corp. precedent establishing that damages cannot be presumed when defamatory statements were made by the media. The appellate court found that Richie was not applicable because the statements in question in this case were made by a private individual and a non-profit organization, rather than by the media. Someplace Safe, in its appeal to the Supreme Court, argued that institutional press was not the sole beneficiary of the First Amendment and contended that with the rise of the internet and the decline of print and broadcast media, it has become impossible to determine who qualifies as a member of the media. The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, reasoned that “it is the private or public concern of the statements at issue—not the identity of the speaker—that provides the First Amendment touchstone for determining whether a private plaintiff may rely on presumed damages in a defamation action.” The Courts’ reasoning was grounded in NY Times v Sullivan where the US Supreme Court held that the First Amendment signified “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” (p. 18)
Do the Allegedly Defamatory Statements Involve a Matter of Public Concern?
The Minnesota Supreme Court explained that if the allegedly defamatory statements did not involve a matter of public concern, then Maethner could claim presumed damages and establish that the statements were defamatory per se. To determine if the statements involved a matter of public concern, a Court must consider the content, form and context of the statements as a whole.
The Minnesota Court noted that the facts of the US Supreme Court Snyder v Phelps case were particularly helpful in illustrating how to analyze if statements were of public concern. Snyder arose out of protests by members of the Westboro Baptist Church at a funeral of a solider. The protesters carried signs that said “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11”,“Fag Troops”, “America is Doomed” and other similar messages. The Supreme Court observed that the signs highlighted “the political and moral conduct of the United States and its citizens, the fate of our Nation, homosexuality in the military, and scandals involving the Catholic clergy: which were all matters of public importance. To the US Supreme Court, the fact that some messages were directed specifically at the soldier and his family did not change the fact that the overall thrust and dominant theme of Westboro’s demonstration spoke to broader public issues.” The Court also noted the context of Westboro’s demonstrations, particularly that they aimed to reach a broad public audience by taking place in a public area.
Here, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed that the statements related to a matter of public concern, specifically – domestic violence. Content is just one of the relevant factors that a court had to consider. The Court also held that the distinction between “the media-versus nonmedia-defendant” may also be relevant to the analysis. However, district and appellate courts did not analyze whether the statements in question involve a matter of public concern. Hence the Minnesota Supreme Court remanded the issue to the district court to decide.
Did Someplace Safe have a Duty to Investigate the Veracity of Jorud’s Statements?
Someplace Safe argued that a victims’ advocacy group can never have a duty to investigate. The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected this argument and ruled that the organization’s duty was to act as a reasonable person under similar circumstances would act. Here, Someplace Safe met that duty. It did not believe that Jorud’s statements were false and had no reason to question her honesty or credibility. The organization asserted that in many cases of domestic abuse victims do not press charges or provide proof that they were victimized. Further, Maethner failed to offer any evidence that “ a reasonable person in the circumstances here would have investigated Jorud’s statements or that the relevant customs and practices of non-profit, victim-advocacy organizations [were] to investigate the accuracy of statements made by a person who sought services from that organization.” (p. 28) The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that Maethner failed to establish that Someplace Safe breached a duty and therefore reversed the court of appeals judgment and reinstated the district court’s dismissal of Maethner’s defamation claim.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Minnesota Supreme Court extended First Amendment protections against defamation liability to non-media speakers, reiterating that the nature of the speaker was less important than whether the speech in question concerned a matter of public interest. The judgment brought Minnesota in-line with the majority of states in the United States that extend First Amendment protections to non-media speakers. Considering that the allegedly defamatory speech occurred online, the judgment extended constitutional protections to posts made on social media and via email.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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