In some ways, John “Northside Johnny” Hoff represents the upside of blogging. He’s found a niche, and he covers it in a way that conventional news reporters just can’t. Or won’t. In his case, the niche is the mortgage fraud that left a frightening share of North Minneapolis’ homes foreclosed:
I don’t know what fascinates me so much about mortgage fraud. I’m not a victim and I’ve never had a mortgage before. Initially, I was just looking for some houses that might be “damaged goods” because of the fraud, looking for a bargain, but then I got totally into the topic when I saw a role that could be filled digging up info. People give me some kudos for digging up info, but I don’t think it’s such a big deal. I’m just compulsive about it. Once I catch the scent, I just don’t quit, because I love the digging, the solving of a complicated mystery.
In some other ways, ironically, John Hoff may represent the worst of citizen journalism, as I noted back in 2007, when he wrote a piece in the U of M’s Minnesota Daily…:
Maybe it was all the wine my buddy salvaged from some trash containers after a high-class tasting party, and then served up at his own festive blow-out gathering of assorted radicals on Friday night, but I’m really starting to have hope.
Yes, I’m starting to believe certain vague, visionary plans to throw our Republican friends a street party in St. Paul in 2008 are really, truly going to happen.
Look away, you fun-loving Republicans, we’re planning a big surprise party for little ol’ you during your special convention in 2008…Will enough people come to the street demonstrations in 2008? Will it be a gas? Will demonstrators have enough sense to focus on a target of opportunity outside the main security perimeter, like a luxury hotel where delegates will be staying with their laptops and revealing documents, instead of going up against massive security surrounding the convention center? It would be good to apply the hard-earned lessons of Seattle in 1999.
…where he called for not only street violence, but the physical stalking of individual RNC delegates (which, to the best of my knowledge, never happened).
(Note – I‘m not positive that both stories involve the same John Hoff, although the writing styles in the blog and the Daily piece have most of the same written “Tells”. If it is not the same John Hoff, I’ll promptly correct the story. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue, though UPDATE: It’s him).
There’s a little bit of both on display in the “landmark” lawsuit against Hoff, filed by a U of M employee, Jerry Moore. MPR’s Laura Yuen wrote as complete a coverage of the suit as I’ve seen so far, and who has a pretty concise setup of the backstory:
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.
Moore is suing Hoff for defamation.
Now, under Minnesota law, to prove defamation one has to prove four things:
- That party A said something about party B to one or more Party Cs…: Where A=Hoff, B=Moore, and C=the public. Since Hoff publishes on a blog, that’s pretty much a given.
- …that is untrue, and…
- …has a reasonable chance of damaging Party B’s livelihood or reputation in the community…: like, by getting him fired from his job
- …and if Party B is a public figure, it can be proven that Party A acted with malice: As in “a jury will buy the idea that Party A lied about B, and knew he was lying, because his goal was to do damage to B”. Minnesota recognizes two classes of “public figures”, by the way; regular “public figures” – elected officials like Mark Dayton, or people who are just plain prominent, like Denny Hecker or Don Shelby or Joe Mauer, and “limited public figures”, people who may not necessarily be famous, but are public within a profession, a community group, a neighborhood, or some other subset of the general population; whatever kind of public figure one is, the burden of proving “malice” is the same.
The real contentions are “did Hoff lie”, and – since the court held that Moore is some form of public figure, did he lie maliciously.
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.'”
Which is a useful tip for any blogger.
But I strongly suspect (and be advised that I am no lawyer) that this suit is not the one that’s going to be the landmark case about community journalism and media freedom; Hoff merely needs to show that he told the truth – that Moore was involved in mortgage fraud – and not have done anything that jumps up and down and screams “I’m lying and I’m being malicious about it!” (like, say, having sent an email saying “I know I’ve got the wrong facts, and I don’t care, because I’m that angry at you!”, or something equally stupid ).
Now – if it turns out Jerry Moore was not involved in any sort of mortgage fraud, and Hoff was dumb enough to leave evidence of malice, there’s really no landmark suit; bloggers should no more be able to lie without consequences about their subjects than the mainstream media.
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.
And if the first question isn’t “how did Moore hire such a delusional lawyer”, I’m a leftyblogger’s uncle.
Still, there is a nasty side to these sorts of suits, if not this specific suit: bigger, better-funded people than Moore can use such suits to stifle criticism:
A wide range of similar cases around the country is seeking to clarify free speech issues in a digital landscape…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.”
“Johnny Northside”, naturally, is covered:
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.
The moral, of course, is tell the truth, and try to leave your more obstreporous emotions – say, malice – out of your blogging.
UPDATE: Ed Kohler has links to a broad swathe of other reporting on the trial.
UPDATE 2: For those who didn’t get it from my second example above, not everyone is thrilled with John Hoff’s blogging. No, not at all. Let’s just say there are two sides, at least, to this story. Also, the people of Grand Forks, about ten years ago, were un-thrilled with his term as a Green Party city councilman.
Like I said – many sides to this story. Bottom line: keep it factual.
 Real life example.