Overview of Defamation Law in Minnesota

The purpose of defamation laws is to protect people from false statements that may harm others. Defamation is not defined by a Minnesota Statute. However, defamation is a common law cause of action that is well-established in Minnesota case law. In short, defamation is a false statement published to a third party, whether intentional or not, that harms another person’s reputation. “Publication” can either be spoken or in written format. A spoken defamatory statement is called slander. A written statement, such as in an email, text or letter, is called libel. In modern times, the term “defamation” is generally used to describe both libel and slander.

A defamation case can be complicated by many factors when either pursuing a defamation claim or defending against one. For example, defamation cases are usually considered a civil matter or personal injury case where money is the usual remedy. However, a defamatory statement can be egregious enough to result in punitive damages. In fact, until a Minnesota statute was struck down as unconstitutional in 2015, certain defamatory remarks could land the defendant in jail. The defamed claimant can be either a person or entity such as a business. Additionally, different standards apply, depending on whether the defamed claimant is considered a private or public figure. Finally, because defamation is governed by state law, different state laws may apply if the defamation occurred or harmed a resident in another state. As defamation cases tend to be heavily fact-driven, thorough investigation and discovery is crucial to the successful prosecution or defense of a defamation case As such, each case must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

Relevant Background on Civil Defamation

A. Elements of Defamation

In a defamation claim, the plaintiff must establish that the defamatory statement contains the following three elements:

  1. The statement was communicated to someone other than the plaintiff
  2. The statement was false
  3. The statement must “tend to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and to lower him in the estimation of the community.”

While the elements for defamation may seem pretty straightforward, there has been significant litigation surrounding each element.

B. Standards of Liability: Negligence vs. Actual Malice

A defendant is negligent if he “knew or should have known in the exercise of reasonable care” that the defamatory statement was false. Negligence is a more-likely-than-not standard of liability. This standard is applied to claimants who are private individuals.

On the other hand, a claimant who is deemed a public official or public figure (such as a celebrity) must overcome a higher burden of proof standard. The higher standard is one of actual malice or reckless disregard of the truth with “clear and convincing proof”.

C. Defenses to Defamation

Below is a list of common defenses to defamation:

  1. Truth: as the opposite of a false statement, a true statement, even if defamatory, is an absolute defense against defamation.
  2. Substantial Truth: a claimant will still likely not prevail if the statement is substantially true despite some minor false or inaccurate information.
  3. Statute of Limitation: there is a two-year statute of limitation from the date of first publication for a defamation claim.
  4. Qualified Privilege: examples of privileged speech include statements in official reports; professional reviews; an employer’s response to an unemployment claim; and worker’s compensation claims. This defense is usually invoked in the employment context.
  5. Retraction Statute: can be a defense for newspaper or other media outlets that has published a defamatory statement.
  6. Opinion Defense: the First Amendment protects freedom of speech in the form of opinions. However, one must be careful of what constitutes an “opinion”.

Potential Consequences of Violating the Law

Minnesota allows for general damages, such as emotional and mental distress and loss of reputation. Minnesota also allows for special damages which is usually an economic loss that is quantifiable. In defamation per se cases, punitive damages are also allowed.

Famous Defamation Case

A recent defamation case involved former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and the late Navy SEAL-turned-author Chris Kyle. Mr. Ventura was allegedly defamed in Mr. Kyle’s best-selling autobiography “American Sniper”. Mr. Ventura claimed the false statement ostracized him from the SEAL community, in which he was a member. The jury, by a split verdict of 8-2, awarded Mr. Ventura $500,000 for defamation damages and $1.3 million for unjust enrichment. This is a rare case where a public figure won a defamation claim, and the case may have precedential value.

Criminal Defamation

While civil defamation (covered above) allows someone to sue, criminal defamation can be prosecuted by the government.

Criminal defamation is found in Minnesota Statutes section 609.765:

Subdivision 1. Definition.
Defamatory matter is anything which exposes a person or a group, class or association to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation or disgrace in society, or injury to business or occupation.

Subdivision 2. Acts constituting.
Whoever with knowledge of its false and defamatory character orally, in writing or by any other means, communicates any false and defamatory matter to a third person without the consent of the person defamed is guilty of criminal defamation and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than one year or to payment of a fine of not more than $3,000, or both.

Subdivision 3. Justification.
Violation of subdivision 2 is justified if:
(1) the communication is absolutely privileged; or

(2) the communication consists of fair comment made in good faith with respect to persons participating in matters of public concern; or

(3) the communication consists of a fair and true report or a fair summary of any judicial, legislative or other public or official proceedings; or

(4) the communication is between persons each having an interest or duty with respect to the subject matter of the communication and is made with intent to further such interest or duty.

Subdivision 4. Testimony required.
No person shall be convicted on the basis of an oral communication of defamatory matter except upon the testimony of at least two other persons that they heard and understood the oral statement as defamatory or upon a plea of guilty.