Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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Timothy Turner posted sexuality explicit messages on Craigslist about his ex-girlfriend and her daughter, including the phone number of each. Turner was charged under Minnesota’s criminal defamation statute, which does not require a showing of actual malice. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad but found this could be overcome through narrow interpretation. However, the Court determined it could not do so here without adding language and interfering with the legislative intent. Therefore, the Court found the statute to be unconstitutionally overbroad and reversed Turner’s conviction.
After an argument with his ex-girlfriend, Turner posted ads in retaliation on Craigslist. After Turner posted the phone numbers of both the ex-girlfriend and her daughter with a sexually explicit message, both were contacted by men who wanted to have sex with them and were sent some text messages containing pornographic images. After Turner admitted to posting these ads, the state charged him with two counts of criminal defamation under Minnesota Statute section 609.765 .
Turner attempted to have the charges dismissed by asserting the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad and arguing that using the statute to prosecute him would violate his First Amendment rights. A district court rejected his argument and found Turner guilty on both counts.
Before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Turner argued that Minnesota Statute section 609.765 was unconstitutionally overbroad because did not require “actual malice” for matters of public concern and did not allow an absolute defense for truth. Though the challenger generally has the burden to prove a statute’s unconstitutionality, when it comes First Amendment challenges, the state has the burden of showing the constitutionality of the statute. The state claimed that, despite being overbroad, the statute could be upheld by using a narrowing construction.
Under Minnesota’s standard for defamation of private individuals, set forth in State v. Crawley, the statement must be false for the speaker to be liable. However, the statute’s requirement that “truth be communicated with good motives and justifiable ends violates First Amendment protections because it penalizes protected speech—true statements—in addition to unprotected speech—false statements” [p. 8]. Therefore, the statute does not narrow criminal defamation to just false statements. On matters of public concern, the statute allows for criminal liability to attach without a showing of actual malice, which the Court expressed could chill free political dialogue. In accordance with Jadwin v. Minnesota Star & Tribune Co., the Court found the statute to be overbroad because it allowed for prosecution even when the statement was truthful and without a demonstrated showing of malice.
The state contended that the Court should narrowly interpret the statute in order to bring it within the limits of the constitution, which is something the Court should attempt to do whenever possible. The state wished to utilize the same interpretation that was used by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Crawley. In that case, the Supreme Court reviewed the decision of the Court of Appeals, which had held a statute to be unconstitutional because it criminalized some, but not all, instances of false speech. The Minnesota Supreme Court held that the statute could be upheld if the statute was narrowly construed to punish only speech that violated the definition of defamation.
The Court, however, found that it could not apply that same construction here. Unlike the statute in Crawley that already required a showing malice, the Court in this case would have had to remove language, as the state wanted, and add language to comply with the law. This interference with the statute would be an incursion into the legislature’s domain. Therefore, the Court held “the state has not met the burden of proving the constitutionality of Minnesota’s criminal defamation statute nor provided a functional narrowing construction” [p. 13]. Accordingly, the Court reversed Turner’s conviction.
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This case sets a binding precedent within the state of Minnesota.
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