The Unbiased Eye

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Archive for March 2011

A Blogger, his Demons, the Law Part 2

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This is the second chapter of a three-part story about the Minneapolis blogger who lost a $60,000 damage suit for making a true statement. My shorter version of the story appeared on the Technorati web site: Bloggers feel a cold wind.

Jerry Moore wouldn’t be the first person seriously annoyed by John Hoff.

Last week, Moore, a former neighborhood official in Minneapolis, won a $60,000 civil court judgment against Hoff, a popular blogger in that city’s North Side. In 2009, Moore had lost a job at the University of Minnesota to work on a study of mortgage fraud, he said because of Hoff’s blog. Hoff was outraged because Moore was involved with an identity thief who had been convicted of bilking banks out of $2 million. Moore was not charged, but he was sued in civil court by the victims whose identities were stolen. He was dropped without prejudice from that case.

Like any gadfly, Hoff is difficult, and seems to generate irritation spontaneously; he’s obsessive and tireless in pursuit of his objective. Hoff’s primary targets now are mortgage fraud and sex offenders. You have to agree that these are worthy targets.

Hoff clearly likes the attention his crusades heap on him, working hard for his notoriety, unleashing almost 3,000 posts on his blog since 2008.

His targets set him apart from other gadflies. His targets are mainly individuals, evildoers in his universe. The gadflies hounding politicians and businessmen seem to be more issue-oriented, while Hoff is more personal. This may simply be a difference in scale.

He’s also peripatetic.

In his mid-40s, Hoff may be putting down roots now, according to his own account. But for some time he was moving around to follow his former wife and their boy. He explained that she wanted to get away from him because his life lacked stability, because she wanted to put some distance between him and the boy. Hoff had none of that.

They were living in Seattle when they split up. There, he had taken part in the protests against the World Trade Organization, and agitated on behalf of the homeless and victims of police brutality. He wrote, too, columns for an alternative paper, and he is the author of two books, The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving and Dumpster Diving: The Advanced Course: How to Turn Other People’s Trash into Money, Publicity, and Power, both available at Amazon. Perhaps in keeping with its anarchistic provenance, pirated versions are easy to find on the web.

When his wife left Seattle, he followed her to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he promptly seized a serendipitous opportunity to run for the city council as the Green candidate, and won by six votes, only to be recalled after a couple contentious months. He also got a law degree there, back in 2004, but is still trying to get sufficiently organized to study for the bar exams.

After his wife split for Minneapolis, Hoff followed again. But when she married and moved to the suburbs, Hoff said he figured that he could settle down in Minneapolis to be near his son.

Without much money, he looked at bargain-priced houses that were in foreclosure, a search that brought him to the rundown blue-collar neighborhoods of North Minneapolis, where he heard some of the sad stories of people who lost their shirts at the very beginning of the mortgage crisis. They moved him, and he got involved.

Almost immediately, he made a bitter enemy of a guy named Jim Watkins, who now runs an anti-Johnny Northside blog, called the Misadventures of Johnny Northside. Hoff calls him the anti-Johnny. Hoff has since collected quite a few enemies. He just stirs things up.

It helps to understand that neighborhoods are formal jurisdictions in Minneapolis, and as such, the bottom rung of politics, with it money and power.

Before Moore started to work at the university, he lost a job on the Jordan area neighborhood board amid freewheeling controversy. Politics in Minneapolis looks like medieval conflict — just substitute the county courts for the jousting field. And everyone seems to take things personally. Everyone takes sides, everyone has enemies who are out to get them. Friends of enemies are, naturally, enemies.

In fact the political climate of the whole state is a bit unusual. Remember that Minnesota is the home of Jesse Ventura, the former governor and professional wrestler, of Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a darling of the various tea parties, and the liberal Senator Al Franken and his tumultuous close campaign in 2008. Politics is played with a passion.

If Hoff is anything, he’s passionate. His cause célèbre is the house on Hillside Avenue North. The big fish, Maxwell, was caught. But Hoff will not rest until the little fish are also too caught — those small players the prosecutors don’t have time for. But it’s a difficult calling. He’s broke. He has ads on his blogs but he says they earn peanuts for him. He works sometimes as a truck driver and sometimes as a paralegal.

He also says he’s been threatened, that his tires have been slashed, and that his house windows have been broken. The worst of all worlds, for Hoff, is to be shut down by a lawsuit that experts called “an end run around the First Amendment.”

Hoff said he’s going to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. Until that day, he’s going to keep repeating the statement the jury decided was true: that Moore was involved in a mortgage fraud. Meanwhile, Hoff’s building a war chest. He’s raised $110 in cash and gotten a $21.70 photocopy card.

His lawyer, Paul Godfread, is young and came to the case late — the court made him change lawyers, he said — and represented him without charge. Godfread said, “John would like it to go the Supreme Court, but I’m not sure about that.” But he said he has grounds to challenge the verdict and is asking the judge to throw it out. Beyond that there are three levels of appeal in the state courts. Godfread, who worked pro bono, is not so sure about the journey.

Moore’s lawyer, Jill Clark, said she’s not worried about appeals. She sees no legal issues in the case for the appeals court, and plays down the fact that the defamation claim was rejected by the jury. She expects the judgment will stand.

Part 3 will address some of the legal questions about this case and how it could be a problem as political discussion shifts from the traditional media to the Internet.

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Written by theunbiasedeye

March 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Media, Trends