Appeals court: Criminal defamation law is unconstitutional
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that a state law making it illegal to defame someone is unconstitutional because it's too broad.
The decision reverses the conviction of Timothy Turner, who was found guilty of criminal defamation after he posted sexually explicit Internet ads in 2013 that appeared to be posted of his ex-girlfriend and her underage daughter. The ads led multiple men to contact both females for sex; some sent pornographic images to the girl.
Turner admitted he posted the ads because he was mad.
The judges found Minnesota's criminal defamation law violates the First Amendment because it allows for the prosecution of true statements, which are protected speech, as well as false statements. They also found it doesn't require the state to prove "actual malice," knowledge that a statement is false or made with reckless disregard for the truth.
The appeals court said that "although the appellant's conduct was reprehensible and defamatory, we cannot uphold his conviction under an unconstitutional statute."
Isanti County Attorney Jeff Edblad said prosecutors respect the court's decision, but they are disappointed on behalf of the victims. Assistant County Attorney Deanna Natoli said prosecutors don't know if they will appeal.
Turner's attorney, John Arechigo, said the appeals court made the right decision based on legal issues presented.
"This type of challenge, it wasn't necessarily advocating for the type of behavior that the defendant engaged in," he said.
Natoli said Turner's specific conduct in this case would not be protected under the First Amendment, but that the judges couldn't allow his conviction to stand because they found the statute criminalizes other speech that is protected.
Natoli said she could have charged Turner with disorderly conduct, but that didn't seem to fit this "deplorable" behavior. Natoli and Arechigo both said they are unaware of any other laws that specifically make this type of activity a crime.
Rep. Debra Hilstrom, a Brooklyn Center Democrat, introduced a bill this session that would make it a felony to harass someone by impersonating the victim online or by other electronic means. The bill did not pass, but Hilstrom said she intends to take it up again.
In cases like this, the perpetrators are doing more than hurting a person's feelings — they are putting lives in danger, Hilstrom said. She noted some cases in which men seeking sex have shown up at victims' homes.
"Technology gets out ahead of statutes all the time. This is a new way that people are doing things that are a harm to the victims," she said. "It's not safe and it's wrong. ... We need to give prosecutors the tools they need."
During oral arguments, prosecutors conceded the law was overbroad, but asked the appeals court to uphold the statute by construing it narrowly. The judges wrote that to do that, they'd have to rewrite the law, which would invade the legislative domain.