THE MINNESOTA COURT OF APPEALS HAS DECLARED THE MINNESOTA CRIMINAL DEFAMATION STATUTE UNCONSTITUTIONAL
The Court released a published opinion today holding the statute unconstitutionally overbroad. For those familiar with our criminal defamation appeal, it appears as though the fight is over.
The Court agreed with our argument in several areas. Our primary argument all along had been that the Minnesota criminal defamation statute punishes true statements. True statements are absolutely protected. This is not up for debate. The Court of Appeals agreed and was clear in its opinion when it stated the statute’s “requirement that the truth be communicated with good motives and justifiable ends violates First Amendment protections,” “because it penalizes protected speech — true statements — in addition to unprotected speech — false statements.”
The other major shortcoming of the Minnesota criminal defamation statute was that it punished statements on matters of public concern without requiring a showing that the speaker knew the statement was false.
KNOWLEDGE OF FALSITY (OR RECKLESS DISREGARD OF THE LIKELIHOOD OF FALSITY) IS A REQUIRED ELEMENT OF A CIVIL DEFAMATION CLAIM.
A civil plaintiff must make this showing in order to collect punitive damages. The Minnesota criminal defamation statute failed to contain this required element. This argument was excellently addressed by Eugene Volokh. The Court agreed with Volokh’s argument that it is not “permissible to jail people under a lesser showing than that required to collect punitive damages from them.”
Our final argument convinced the Court that the statute would have to be re-written in order to be constitutional. In some very limited circumstances, a court can declare a statute unconstitutional but can save it from ultimately holding the statute unconstitutional by narrowly applying it to reach only a very specific action. However, if a court would be required to essentially rewrite the statute or strike language from a statute, then the court must declare the statute unconstitutional. The Court disagreed with the State’s argument that the criminal defamation statute could be narrowly tailored to survive our challenge. The Court noted doing so “would require a rewrite” of the statute, which is the job of the legislature.
THE FACT THAT THE COURT ISSUED A PUBLISHED OPINION IN THIS CASE IS ENCOURAGING.
Opinions from the Court of Appeals are either unpublished or published. The majority of opinions are unpublished. Unpublished opinions are not binding on the lower courts, meaning district court judges are not bound to follow an unpublished opinion from the Court of Appeals. Published opinions, however, are binding. District court judges throughout Minnesota are bound to follow a published opinion from the Court of Appeals. Our win effectively means that all pending criminal defamation charges in Minnesota must be dismissed.
At this point, the Minnesota criminal defamation statute is dead.