In May of this year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned a conviction in the case of a man who posed as his ex-girlfriend and her daughter when he posted sexually explicit comments on Craigslist. According to the StarTribune, the August 2013 ads included the women’s phone numbers in a section for women seeking sex with men. The woman started receiving graphic text messages and pictures from people responding to the ad. They pressed charges, and the man was convicted of criminal defamation.
However, according to the appeals court that overturned the verdict, the decades-old defamation law used to secure the conviction is unconstitutional. As any Minneapolis crime lawyer would know, that ruling essentially decriminalizes defamation, which could spark a challenge from prosecutors.
What the law says
The Minnesota defamation law defines the act as false statements that could subject a party to ridicule, degradation, disgrace, hatred or contempt. Typically, the act takes place as either libel, which covers communication in written form, or slander, which is oral. In order to be considered criminal, there must be a statement that is defamatory that is published or spoken to third parties. Further, the person committing the act must have known or should have known that the information was false.
In many cases, plaintiffs will have to prove that the statement did harm to their reputations. However, there is a “defamation per se” standard by which the statements are deemed to be so cruel that the plaintiff does not have to provide such evidence. Pro se arguments are most often used when the statements relate to sexual misconduct.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs may be eligible to recover compensation following a defamation accusation. Under the law, anyone convicted of a defamation crime could face a $3,000 fine or up to a year in prison.
Common Defenses to Defamation
The Minnesota law does permit the justification of alleged defamatory acts if one of the following is met:
- There is privileged communication: For example, one Minnesota case found that employers’ responses to matters such as workers’ compensation claims or unemployment claims are privileged because they have a proper motive and occasion based on reasonable cause.
- The information communicated is true or provided with a good motive.
- The information reflects a fair and true report of an official proceeding.
Perhaps one of the most common defenses to a defamation allegation is using the First Amendment, which is at the crux of the argument over the Minnesota law. The amendment holds that when plaintiffs are public figures, they must be able to prove actual malice. Additionally, some defendants may use the argument that the statement was an opinion and not an assertion of fact. In order to successfully use such a defense, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, the person must be able to prove that the statement was neither true nor false and could not be reasonably interpreted as actual facts.
The ruling in Minnesota
As the StarTribune points out, when a state law conflicts with freedom of speech, the U.S. Constitution has historically prevailed. Such is the case with the defamation law in Minnesota, which the panel of judges found to be too broad.
The judges did state that the defendant’s acts were “reprehensible and defamatory.” However they ruled that the defamation law is unconstitutional because it could criminalize someone’s right to free speech, especially when true statements are made. Further, the judges determined that due to the nature of the law, the standard for winning a civil case is more stringent than securing a conviction in a criminal one.
Supporters of the decision have held that the law is out of touch. It was written in 1963, predating a landmark U.S. Supreme Court that essentially set the standard for the crime. The Minnesota law was also written long before people had to deal with issues such as online advertisements and social media. Simply put, the law could not keep up with the times.
Minnesota could do without such a law entirely, as roughly half the states in the country currently lack defamation laws. The StarTribune points out that over the past few decades, many state defamation laws have either been taken off the books or have been narrowly rewritten as the result of federal cases.
Any Minneapolis crime lawyer would know that the state also could choose to pass new legislation regarding the behavior. Already this session, lawmakers introduced a bill that would modify defamation crimes to make acts like the Minnesota man committed a felony. That measure did not pass. The future of defamation in the state will hinge upon whether or not prosecution will appeal the ruling.
Why the ruling may be appealed
Lawyers on both sides of the Craigslist case admit that there is currently no way to charge someone who has an intent to cause harm when impersonating someone else online. Prosecutors may try to argue that striking down the current defamation law as unconstitutional will mean that people who have committed clear and obvious crimes will not be punished. Already, the Isanti County district attorney has voiced concerns over how people will be protected against defamation without a law in place.
The recent ruling is an important one in protecting the right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Anyone with questions about this matter should consult with a Minneapolis crime lawyer.