Minnesota's high court sides with defendant in #MeToo lawsuit

Minnesota Judicial Center
The Minnesota Judicial Center near the Capitol grounds in St. Paul.
Elizabeth Stawicki | MPR News file photo

In a new ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court has sided with a Minneapolis woman who publicly accused her dance teacher, who’d also been her romantic partner, of sexual assault.

In July of 2020, with the #MeToo movement still in the public’s consciousness, Kaija Freborg took to Facebook and raised concerns about sexual assault in the Twin Cities dance community

In her initial Facebook post, the now 45-year-old nursing professor listed Byron Johnson as one of three dance instructors who coerced her into having sex, “sexual[ly] assaulted, and/or raped” her.  

According to court documents, Johnson and Freborg met in 2011 when she started taking dance lessons at his studio. They began a sexual relationship the following year. 

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Two days after making the Facebook post, Freborg changed it and deleted the rape allegations. But the next week, Johnson sued her, claiming that the post was false and malicious and harmed his reputation. 

Hennepin County Judge David Piper dismissed the suit in late 2021, finding among other things that Freborg’s allegations were true because Johnson admitted to “non-consensual sexual contact with Defendant when he put her hand down his pants and onto his genitals” at a 2015 party.  

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed Piper’s decision, allowing Johnson to proceed with his lawsuit. But in an opinion released Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that because Freborg raised an issue of public concern, she’s entitled to stronger First Amendment protections than she would otherwise enjoy. 

Jane Kirtley, who teaches media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said that with its decision, the state’s highest court added another hurdle for Johnson. He must go beyond convincing a jury that Freborg’s claims are untrue and must also prove that they meet the legal standard of actual malice.

“What is new now is that he has to additionally be able to show that she either knew that what she published was not true or that she published it recklessly,” Kirtley said. 

Scott Flaherty, one of Johnson’s attorneys, said it won’t be difficult to show that proof to a jury. Flaherty said that a footnote in the majority opinion highlights a key fact that’s highly favorable to his client. 

“They acknowledge that Ms. Freborg admitted in private Facebook messages that Johnson never raped her,” Flaherty said. “Obviously that’s something that’s very helpful to us, and we were grateful that the majority acknowledged the same.” 

In her dissent, Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea sides with Johnson, writing that Freborg’s post concerned private conduct in a private relationship and should not receive additional First Amendment protections.

But attorney Natalie Cote, who’s part of Freborg’s legal team, said that the majority opinion is a boon to the #MeToo movement and should encourage people with similar experiences to speak out.

“I think simply that the Supreme Court got it right here, and clearly a conversation about sexual assault experiences is a matter of public concern,” Cote said. 

Kirtley said the ruling sets a major precedent for defamation law in Minnesota. “This is a breathtaking opinion to me in terms of the breadth of the protection for speech that the majority has articulated here.” 

The ruling sends Johnson’s lawsuit back to Hennepin County District Court. Flaherty, his attorney said that he’s considering appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.