MN Supreme Court to decide if domestic violence agency is shielded from defamation claim from an ex-husband

The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a Central Minnesota domestic violence support organization, which allowed a woman at a fundraiser to give a speech about her alleged domestic abuse, can be sued for defamation. The organization — Someplace Safe — also printed details in a newsletter.

The case brought by her ex-husband, whose name was not mentioned in either the speech or newsletter, was thrown out by a district court, but it was reinstated in February by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which said a fundraising banquet isn’t the place to raise allegations of criminality. I wrote about it here.

Eugene Volokh, the UCLA free speech law professor, writes on his blog that he’s filing a friend of the court brief on behalf of the organization, which was sued because of Jacquelyn Jorud’s remarks when she received a “Survivor’s Award” at the dinner in Fergus Falls.

The Court of Appeals said the speech is not protected.

But, writing on his blog, Volokh says a newsletter published by an organization, has the same First Amendment protections as the daily paper, which would require ex-husband Kurt Maethner to prove malice in order to win a defamation case.

“Every other federal circuit court to consider this issue has likewise held that the First Amendment applies equally to media and nonmedia speakers in defamation actions,” Volokh writes, while noting he’s taking no position of whether Maethner was actually libeled by Someplace Safe, but that it’s newsletter enjoys the same First Amendment protections as a newspaper.

In February, Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Diane Bratvold wrote that Someplace Safe isn’t provided the same protection because the article it printed — basically written by the ex-wife — was not content from a wire service or other news service.

  • I would hate to think that for something to qualify as free speech it must have been “content from a wire service or other news service”.

    • The case will likely involve whether a fundraising newsletter enjoys the same protection afforded newspapers as provided in the Supreme Court decision in Sullivan v. New York Times, in which an Alabama County commissioner sued because the Times printed an ad alleging that the arrest of ML King JR was part of a campaign to destroy efforts to integrate schools. It struck down Alabama law that said the person didn’t have to prove he’d actually been harmed to win a defamation case.

      One thing that is interesting to me is the Citizens United case is being used to back the speaker because it declared that there’s no distinction in media/non media when it comes to protected speech.