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Supreme Court tosses defamation claim against victims' group

By AMY FORLITI Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed a defamation claim against an organization that helps victims of domestic violence on Wednesday, saying the group had no reason to doubt a woman’s claim that she had been abused and did not breach its duty by failing to investigate her statements.
But the state’s highest court sent a defamation claim against the woman back to a lower court in west-central Minnesota, saying the district court must decide whether her statements about surviving abuse are a matter of public or private concern. If they are of private concern, he could pursue damages.
The woman’s ex-husband sued her and Someplace Safe in 2017, alleging his reputation was harmed when she began speaking about past abuse after the couple divorced. Someplace Safe gave her an award and published her story in a newsletter.
The woman never named her ex-husband, and criminal charges or an order of protection were never filed against him. But the man said that a reasonable person in the community would assume she was talking about him. The Supreme Court justices did not decide whether he was the subject of her claims, as that issue was not before them.
But the justices did find that a private plaintiff may not recover presumed damages for defamatory statements involving a matter of public concern unless the plaintiff can establish actual malice.
“This defamation appeal requires us to strike a delicate balance between the State’s interest in providing redress for citizens claiming reputational injury and the free speech protections the First Amendment provides,” Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea wrote for the majority.
The justices found that “like all laws regulating speech, the doctrine of defamation per se cannot offend the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment.” Gildea wrote that the court has recognized that personal reputation is worthy of protection, but at the same time, the courts can’t offer recourse for injury to reputation at the cost of chilling speech on matters of public concern.
Someplace Safe and the woman argued that speech relating to domestic violence is a matter of public concern, but the man argued the statement in question was a private matter between former spouses. Since that question was not determined by the lower court, the Supreme Court sent the case back to Otter Tail county to decide that issue.
Marshall Tanick, the man’s attorney, said the decision establishes a dichotomy between public and private concerns.
“This case supposes some new challenges for people pursuing defamation claims for harm to their reputations, however it also offers some opportunities for them to obtain damages if they can show that the subject was a matter of private concern,” Tanick said. “Those issues remain to be resolved in future litigation.”
A message left with an attorney for the woman was not immediately returned.
The Supreme Court also found that, in the absence of evidence that gives Someplace Safe reason to doubt the woman’s statements, the organization did not breach its duty of care by failing to investigate her claims about domestic violence before publishing them.
Associate Justice Paul Thissen dissented on that point, saying he would send the case against Someplace Safe back to the district court for a jury to decide whether the group acted with reasonable care before publishing the woman’s allegedly defamatory statements.
Margaret Skelton, an attorney for Someplace Safe, said the decision to dismiss her client was appropriate.
“Victims of domestic violence often do not have police records, witnesses or photographs that verify their abuse,” Skelton said in a statement. “The Court determined that Someplace Safe acted as any reasonable, non-profit victims’ advocacy group would act by referring to its client as a “survivor” and by publishing a client’s statements about her personal experiences.”
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