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Ex-Boyfriend's Craigslist Revenge Post Protected by First Amendment

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May a criminal libel statute punish true statements when said for 'bad motives' or 'unjustifiable ends'?

Minnesota's defamation law was recently struck down as overbroad by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which recently ruled in favor of the First Amendment right of an ex-boyfriend to post sexually explicit Craigslist ads about an ex-girlfriend.

The messages resulted Timothy Turner's ex-girlfriend receiving multiple phone calls from men seeking to have sex with her.

Ads offer sex

In 2013, Turner listed ads on Craigslist in the “women seeking men” section to humiliate his ex-girlfriend. The ads offered sex and gave her personal information, such as her phone number and the town she lived in. “The ads also included derogatory remarks and racial language,” said Assistant Isanti County Attorney Deanna Natolli, who prosecuted Turner.

Turner, in a second Craigslist ad, even pretended to be his ex-girlfriend's 17-year-old daughter, again inviting sex, indicating she would be willing to do anything, and providing her personal phone number.

The mother and daughter had no idea what had happened to them until about 6:00AM in the morning when they were receiving text messages stating, “I'll be there in twenty minutes, just tell me where to go.” Men were sending the mother and daughter videos and pictures of their body parts.

Reprehensible, but unconstitutional

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An investigator traced the ads to Turner, who eventually admitted he placed them in retaliation for his relationship suddenly falling apart. After the conviction, Turner appealed, claiming the state's existing criminal defamation statute is unconstitutional.

The case, State v. Turner has challenged the constitutionality of Minnesota Statute 609.765, a criminal defamation statute. A challenge asserting constitutional overbreadth does not necessarily challenge the facts of a case. While the defendant, Turner, was accused of posting Craigslist sex ads in the names of his ex-girlfriend's and her daughter's, including listing their respective cell phone numbers, the amicus briefs submitted in his favor did not require an inquiry into the facts of the case.

Electronic impersonation

In her ruling, Judge Denise Reilly called Turner's behavior “reprehensible and defamatory,” but found his conviction unconstitutional. The case even prompted a Minnesota legislator, Representative Deb Hilstrom, a Brooklyn Center Democrat and Anoka County prosecutor, to file a bill in the recent session making an electronic impersonation a new felony offense in Minnesota. “The real issue we're getting at here is when you're really attempting to cause harm,” Representative Hilstrom told members of the House Public Safety Committee.

The bill is aimed at people who use false personas in social media to harass others and inflict harm to the impersonated person. Fake Twitter accounts designed to be humorous are far different in Rep. Hilstrom's mind.

“It's a difference when you are criminally taking on the identity of the person you're trying to harass, and that's really what this is about,” Hilstrom explained. “People are taking over minors' Facebook pages and then posting pornographic videos and pornographic information.”

Legal blogger and professor, Eugene Volokh, submitted a brief on Turner's behalf, arguing that even true statements can be prosecuted under the Minnesota law, something Judge Reilly said chills free speech. Volokh says, “Whatever the merits of a line between public and private concerns might be for civil liability as to false statements in libel cases, or for review of government employment decisions, that line is too unclear to provide adequate protection for speakers who are risking criminal punishments for true statements.”

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