Trying to Get Someone Fired: A First Amendment Right?

It is not an uncommon sentiment to want to “get someone fired” by conveying unflattering and possibly damaging information to another person’s employer. Most litigation attorneys will tell you that such conduct can put you at risk for a claim for tortious interference with the employee’s employment contract or business relationship. The Minnesota Court of Appeals, however, has held that claims for tortious interference based on truthful, non-defamatory statements made to another’s employer may be constitutionally protected, regardless of the speaker’s motivation.

Moore v. Hoff involved certain statements made by John Hoff (a.k.a. “Johnny Northside”) on his blog, “The Adventures of Johnny Northside.” When Hoff learned that former community council director Jerry Moore was working for a University of Minnesota group studying foreclosure issues, Hoff wrote in his blog that Moore had been fired from his position as executive director of a local community council due to misconduct and that court evidence showed Moore had been involved in a high-profile fraudulent mortgage. Hoff’s friend, Donald Allen, then sent an email to the university, linking Moore to someone under indictment for mortgage fraud, accusing him of a questionable deal, and warning the university it could face a “public relations nightmare” by employing Moore. Allen included a link to Hoff’s blog in the email. The University fired Moore immediately.

Moore sued Hoff for defamation, intentional interference with contract, and interference with prospective advantage. Moore was court.jpgdeemed a “limited purpose public figure” because he’d assumed a prominent role in a public controversy as director of the community council and the alleged defamation related to that controversy. A jury found Hoff interfered with Moore’s contract and prospective business advantage and awarded Moore $60,000. But it also found Hoff’s statements were “not false.” Hoff appealed.

The court held that when claims of tortious interference with business relationships are brought as a result of constitutionally-protected speech, the claims are subject to the same First Amendment restrictions that govern actions for defamation. The court reversed the judgment and instructed the trial court to enter judgment in Hoff’s favor, reasoning that “[b]ecause truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation…truth should also be a defense to a claim for tortious interference with a contract arising out of an allegedly defamatory statement.”

The Court noted that Hoff enjoyed a heightened level of protection because he was writing truthful information regarding an issue of public concern and involving a public figure.

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