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Mitchell Hamline Law Review Amicus Curiae (June 9, 2020)


In Minnesota, the plaintiff in a common law defamation claim is entitled to recover presumed damages in libel and slander per se cases. Those rules change when the First Amendment is injected into defamation cases when the plaintiff is a public official or figure or is a private person involved in a public controversy. A plaintiff who is a public official or figure must prove not only the elements of the common law defamation claim, but also that the defamatory communication was a false statement of fact and prove by clear and convincing evidence that it was made with actual malice (publication with knowledge of the falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth) in order to recover presumed damages. A private person involved in a matter of public concern must prove fault and actual damages in order to recover but must prove actual malice by clear and convincing evidence to recover presumed damages.

The Minnesota Supreme Court clarified the application of those standards in two defamation cases decided in 2019. In Maethner v. Someplace Safe, Inc., the court held that the fault and actual damages requirements in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. apply to defamatory statements relating to public controversies involving private persons, even if published by nonmedia defendants. In McGuire v. Bowlin, decided a little more than two months after Maethner, the court held that a public school basketball coach was not a public official for purposes of the application of the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan actual malice standard. In so holding, the court clarified the standards it adopted in 1991 in Britton v. Koep, for resolving the public official issue. The court also held that the coach was not a public figure because he was not involved in a public controversy.