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Mpls. blogger's defamation trial could have broader impact

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Media law experts are monitoring the case of a north Minneapolis blogger accused of defaming a former community organizer.

The civil trial against John Hoff, the blogger better known as Johnny Northside, began this week in Hennepin County, and some legal observers say they're surprised the lawsuit has made it this far.

No matter the outcome of the case, First Amendment experts say it could have implications for other bloggers and social-media users.

Hoff says he provides a unique role in the media ecosystem. The mainstream media, he says, are like the big fish, swooping into Hoff's neighborhood and feasting on the stories of the day.

"When a house catches fire and burns down, we're right over there going, 'OK, they said the block, we want to know the specific address, we want to know who owned it. We want to know what's going to happen.' So we follow up," he said. "They get a big story, but they leave pieces laying around, and those pieces matter to my neighborhood."

And Hoff said sometimes the reverse happens: He'll beat the heck out of a local story, and watch the big fish follow his lead.

But what landed him in court is a blog post he wrote in June 2009 after Hoff learned that a former community leader was hired by the University of Minnesota's Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center. On his blog, Hoff accused that man, Jerry Moore, of being involved in a high-profile mortgage fraud case, even though Moore was never charged.

The university fired Moore the next day, according to the lawsuit. 

Jane Kirtley, a media law professor at the university, says she was surprised to see the case advance this far. (Kirtley says while many of these cases are brought forward, they're often thrown out without ever going to trial.)

"It's also fair to say that the the sort of give-and-take atmosphere of the blogosphere raised a greater tolerance for the kind of free-for-all commentary that we see so much on the Internet," Kirtley said. "The kind of speech that might have prompted a libel suit three, four, or 10 years ago is much less likely to attract one today because people recognize they've got a lot of other ways to settle the score."

On the other hand, Kirtley said, the case should serve as a reminder that bloggers are not immune to the general laws of libel and privacy.

Legal experts say the case against John Hoff will be tough to prove. Now that the judge has ruled that Jerry Moore is essentially a public figure, Moore himself bears the burden of proving Hoff acted maliciously. That means he must show Hoff knew his allegations were false, or had reckless disregard for the truth. 

Hoff says his defense is the truth, and he stands by his blogging.

"I don't want to get sued," Hoff said. "Whatever I'm writing, I'm thinking, 'It better be true. Better be careful.'"

Jerry Moore's attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story. In the suit, she argues that John Hoff is not protected by the First Amendment because he does not objectively report the news or have journalistic standards.

That argument perplexes some experts on free speech.

"I think that probably doesn't have a chance," said journalism professor Victoria Ekstrand of Bowling Green State University, who added the First Amendment protects bloggers as much as traditional journalists.

"I don't know how the defendant here is any different from anyone else who posts something on the Internet. He gets the same benefit of the doubt walking into court as the rest of us have."

A wide range of similar cases around the country is seeking to clarify free speech issues in a digital landscape. A Louisiana politician sued a newspaper for remarks made by online commenters. And earlier this week, musician Courtney Love settled out of court for Twitter rants against a clothing designer.

Still, Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University who wrote a book on the Internet and the First Amendment, says he's concerned about the case against the Minneapolis blogger for what he believes will be a chilling effect.

"Defamation suits are really expensive," he said. "If we're going to start seeing more of these suits brought against bloggers, we're almost naturally are going to see a timidity from bloggers because they don't want to pay the costs of having to defend the suits, even if they ultimately win the suit in the long run."

Blogger John Hoff, however, is not paying for legal representation. News of his defamation suit garnered the attention of a Harvard University group working to protect the rights of online media. 

That group found an attorney to defend Hoff pro bono in what the northside blogger describes as "the blogosphere trial of the century."