Johnny Northside’s First Amendment Trial: Day 1

I had a chance to check out the Jerry Moore vs. John Hoff (aka Johnny Northside) trial today. It tied in well with getting my license renewed at the DMV. There is nothing like waiting until the last minute to do that downtown.

Here’s what I saw:

Jerry Moore appears to be suing Hoff over two things:

1. After Moore was fired from the Jordan Area Community Council, he was hired by the University of Minnesota’s UROC (University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center) to study mortgages. When Hoff found out about this, he blogged about his disgust with that. Moore was fired. Moore blames Hoff and wants $50,000. (Jerry, if this explanation isn’t entirely accurate, please don’t sue me.)

2. Included in the case is an interesting blogging comments issue, where Moore is also claiming that Hoff is responsible for the content of comments left on his blog. I’ll get into this a bit more below.

The day started with jury selection. 12 jurors were questioned and 7 were kept. Among the 5 dismissed where:

– A guy who said he has his own blog
– A truck driver / NRA member (John Hoff is also a truck driver)
– A woman who works in automotive advertising who claimed that Hoff’s attorney looked familiar. Frankly, I think she came up with an impressive line to avoid being on a trial, and it worked.

I can’t remember why the other two were dismissed.

The judge, Denise Reilly, ran through basic questions with the jurors, including marital status and occupation. She also asked if they blogged, read blogs, newspapers, had heard of The Adventures of Johnny Northside, or the Jordan Area Community Council. Hardly any jurors claimed to be blog readers (one said that she reads her wedding planner’s blog). Few said that they read newspapers. And none said that they had heard of Hoff’s blog.

After the judge’s questions, the lawyers for Hoff and Moore were given the opportunity to ask additional questions of the jurors. Hoff’s lawyer, Paul Godfread, passed, while Moore’s lawyer, Jill Clark, tediously asked additional questions of jurors. It was too tedious for me, so I left to grab some pizza.

After lunch, the trial began. Before opening statements, the judge reminded the galley that no texting was allowed. I had been taking notes on my phone, but didn’t want to get into a debate about what I was using my phone for, so put it away. The wishing it was respected but simply can’t be blog that I wrote about last week has erroneously reported that one galley member was ejected from the courtroom for texting. That was not the cast. When the trial began, people on the witness list were sequestered. Everyone in attendance who was paying attention would know that, and anyone not in attendance would not be able to report on that, so I get the impression that either I’m lying or someone else is, and it’s not me.

Two witnesses took the stand in the afternoon at the request of the prosecution: A character witness for Jerry Moore, and John Hoff. The character witness, Stevan Jackson, was up first. He testified that he’s known Moore for a long time, and that Moore is a good guy, when questioned by his attorney. When questioned by Hoff’s attorney, he admitted that he may not know about all of the financial issues Moore was involved with while working for the Jordan Area Community Council as the Executive Director. It did come out that Moore was being paid $55,000/yr as the community’s ED, which seems a bit high to me compared to what I understand others in similar roles are paid in the city, but I don’t have numbers available right now. If you have some data you could share, drop a link in the comments.

Then Hoff took the stand. Jill Clark started with questions asking about what a blog is, what software it’s run on, and how he’d describe his site. She later moved on to a line of questioning that seemed to be intended to hold Hoff to the same standards used by reporters writing straight new pieces for mainstream media sites (ex. writing without bias). That doesn’t really seem to apply to what Hoff is doing on his blog. He clearly has a bias in favor of exposing wrongdoing in his neighborhood. That’s darn clear. He’s passionate about that and it comes across in the topics he chooses to take on and how he writes about them.

Clark then moved on to a line of questioning that seemed to attempt to frame Hoff as a mouthpiece for City Councilperson, Don Samuels. As I followed it, she seems to be attempting to build some line of reasoning that John’s blog is a channel used by our government to take down Samuel’s opponents while making Samuels look good. To me, this also seems ridiculous since anyone who’s met John knows that he would be impossible to control. Hoff and Samuels are often on the same side of issues, since they both share a goal of seeing North Minneapolis grow into a neighborhood with less crime, fewer foreclosures, and less corruption (mortgage fraud, community councils, etc.).

It was clear from the exchanges between Hoff and Clark that they don’t care for each other. I don’t know Clark’s history with Hoff, but I think Hoff may be less than impressed with Clark after watching her represent Al Flowers in a case last year where Al Flowers sued Don Samuels for, supposedly, violating Flowers’ civil rights. Flowers went down in flames in that case.

Are Bloggers Responsible for Blog Comments?

At the end of the day, after the jury was dismissed, Judge Reilly took on what is one of the most interesting, and downright scary, part of this case. Jerry Moore is not just suing John Hoff over what Hoff said. He’s also suing Hoff over what commenters on The Adventures of Johnny Northside said in the comments of Hoff’s post from June of 2009.

Blogging isn’t exactly new in 2011, but case law surrounding things like blog comments are still being worked out. As I understand the arguments that were made, there seemed to be some agreement that a blog that allows all comments to be published could claim to be not responsible for the content of blog posts. In Hoff’s case, however, that’s not what he does, for a variety of reasons. In Hoff’s case, he has configured his Blogger blog to hold new comments in a moderation queue from which he can selectively approve them. Moore’s attorney, Jill Clark, appears to be planning to argue that this makes each approval of a comment by Hoff and endorsement of the content of the comment.

Should Clark’s argument prevail, basically every blog and newspaper website in the world would want to seriously consider either shutting down comments entirely, or opening up comments entirely, in order to avoid being sued on the grounds Clark appears to be planning to use for her case.

And, the default settings on every WordPress blog would technically expose them to similar liability. For those of you now familiar with the WordPress blogging platform, it generally comes configured to hold the first comment from every first-time commenter in a moderation queue. There are many benefits to this. For one, it prevents spam from ever seeing the light of day on one’s blog. It also gives one the ability to foster a community of civility on one’s website.

One comment from Hoff’s June 2009 post that’s been mentioned in the case, is this one:

Anonymous said…
I suggest we all write to the Board of Regents – they can be reached right here:

Be sure to include printed pages of blogs, news articles and other documentation of the type of quality leader that Mr Moore exemplifies.

June 21, 2009 7:24 PM

This, Clark seems to be claiming, was approved by Hoff as an endorsement of the behavior being suggested by the anonymous commenter. Frankly, I see this type of comment every day on blogs and newspaper websites. Coalition builder comments seem mundane to me since few people will actually take action on what they read. And, in the end, if action is taken, it will only have an impact if the action was justified. For example, let’s assume for a second that people who read Hoff’s blog post from Jun 21, 2009. Then read the comments, including the one quoted above. And then actually did contact the Board of Regents. That alone would not get Jerry Moore fired. I’m sure people contact the Board of Regents on a regular basis asking people working for the U of MN to be fired. In the end, if they are fired, it is because of an anonymous comment on a blog? Or, is it because legitimate concerns were raised about an employee?

Which brings me to the questions I haven’t seen addressed: Why is Jerry Moore suing John Hoff over his lost job at UROC rather than suing the U of MN? If this was a wrongful termination, wouldn’t the U of MN be the place to sue? Don’t they have deeper pockets than Hoff? No matter what Hoff or Hoff’s commenter’s wrote on Hoff’s blog, it sure seems like it was the U of MN who weighed the facts that were brought to light and decided that Jerry Moore had to go.

Sadly, I’m going to miss tomorrow’s hearing. But, if you have a chance and are interested in the blog commenting arguments at play here, head to room 655C at the Government Center at 9am on the 8th to hear the lawyers representing both sides duke it out on that very important issue. Then, it will be back to Jill Clark grilling John Hoff, followed by Hoff’s lawyer, Paul Godfread, questioning Hoff about the case.

7 thoughts on “Johnny Northside’s First Amendment Trial: Day 1”

  1. I’m almost scared to comment! Thanks for the write-up, always informative. The reasoning behind comment moderation (preventing inappropriate behavior or spam) doesn’t appear to have been addressed. It’s also fairly interesting that a potential member of the jury was dismissed because he had a blog. This is 2011, right? A LOT of people have blogs.

  2. Possible corrections…

    A woman who works IN automotive advertising not IS.

    Judge reminded THE galley not THE THE galley.

    I don’t know how “Steve” Jackson spells his name. We all call him “Steve.” Fact check it?

    Extra apostrophe that doesn’t belong on “Samuels.” (While making Samuel’s look good)

    Otherwise can’t argue with it at all.

  3. Weeding out jurors for having a blog seems bizzarely random and arbitrary. If the case involved a traffic accident, would they dismiss potential jurors for owning a car, since they might have some mysterious car knowledge? And btw, thanks for writing up the “deets” on the trial!

  4. I also find the argument that bias somehow negates first amendment protection to be disturbing. Has this been upheld in other case law?

    Common sense says that even biased speech should be protected. Let’s say, hypothetically, that there was an in-depth article examining George W. Bush’s impact on the economy. That lengthy piece, hypothetically appeared in both Mother Jones magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Clearly we’d see two very different articles. Why? Because of bias. And if those two publications are still protected, one would think bloggers would be too.

  5. Note the law professor quoted in John Tevlin’s opinion column (Star Tribune) who says that argument is “far fetched.”

  6. @John, I’ve fixed the typos you pointed out. For Steve’s name, I relied on Sheila’s spelling at the TC Daily Planet. She had paper for note taking.

  7. @veg*nation, when the prospective juror disclosed that he had a blog, he was asked about what topic he writes about. It’s possible that the topics had more to do with the lawyer(s) decision to drop him.

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