Minnesota court strikes down state's defamation law

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A Minnesota man's posting of sexually explicit comments about his ex-girlfriend on Craigslist was "reprehensible" but not illegal, according to a ruling Tuesday from the Minnesota Court of Appeals which struck down the state's criminal defamation law.

The case

The three-judge panel overturned the criminal conviction of Timothy Robert Turner on defamation charges. Turner, 50, of Mora, posted ads on Craigslist in 2013 to retaliate against his girlfriend after they had an argument, the Star Tribune reports.

He wrote the posts pretending to be his girlfriend and her underage daughter, and included their cell phone numbers. As a result, the two received several phone calls from men seeking sex, as well as sexually explicit text messages, according to the court ruling.

Turner admitted he posted the messages and was convicted in 2014 on two counts of criminal defamation in Isanti County. He was sentenced to a fine and 30 days in jail, but that's been on hold while his appeal was underway, according to the Star Tribune.

The ruling

The appeals court overturned Turner's conviction, saying he had a First Amendment right to post the messages, even though his conduct was "reprehensible and defamatory," the ruling noted.

The ruling struck down Minnesota's 52-year-old criminal defamation law, saying it's too broad and criminalizes some forms of speech that are not considered illegal under recent Supreme Court rulings.

The current statute criminalizes "true statements and statements made without 'actual malice.' Because the statute penalizes protected, as well as unprotected speech, it is unconstitutionally overbroad and in violation of First Amendment protections," Judge Denise Reilly wrote.

Judge Reilly noted the Legislature hasn't updated the law since 1963, so it doesn't reflect the "multiple, seminal" rulings that have been made since then which define what speech is legal and what's illegal.

A Minnesota attorney who specializes in free speech issues told the Star Tribune this law has been a “sitting duck constitutionally for decades.” Mark Anfinson said even though some people who are "guilty of very serious behavior" could go unpunished, he said the ruling is important to protect free speech rights under the First Amendment.

In a response to this case, KARE 11 reports a state lawmaker introduced a measure in the recent legislative session to make it a felony to impersonate someone else on social media, as Turner did when he pretended to be his girlfriend.

FOX 9 notes that this ruling involved the state's criminal defamation law. It doesn't change a person's ability to sue someone for defamation in civil court, because those cases are governed by different standards.

The most recent high-profile defamation suit involved former Minn. Gov. Jesse Ventura, who won his case against the estate of Chris Kyle last year when he claimed an anecdote in Kyle's best-selling memoir, "American Sniper," harmed his reputation and caused him lost income

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