Reputation in a Court Far from Home:

Minnesota Law on Internet Defamation and Personal Jurisdiction

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently held a Massachusetts resident could not be sued in Minnesota for defamation allegedly published on a Facebook page and Twitter feed.

If someone from another state defames you on social media, can you sue them in your home state, or must you file your lawsuit in the state where they live? If someone takes offense at a comment you posted online, can they sue you in a place far away?

Courts are gradually clarifying the law governing internet interactions. For Minnesota residents, three cases including one recent Court of Appeals decision provide guidance concerning where defamation lawsuits based on internet statements can be brought. 1

Background: Personal Jurisdiction

The basic issue is convenience. If someone wants to sue you, that person can’t file the lawsuit just anywhere. She must file it in a court that has “personal jurisdiction” over you as the defendant. In rough terms, this means a court in a place where it would be fair to sue you.2 It wouldn’t be fair to sue you in Alaska, if you’ve never been to Alaska and never had any connection to that state; imposing the inconvenience and expense of traveling to Alaska just to defend yourself in court would not be reasonable or just. Generally speaking, it’s fair to sue you in the state where you live, or in a state where you have a meaningful connection, by reason of traveling there or conducting business there. Courts in those states may have “personal jurisdiction” over you.

The Problem: Internet Defamation

Traditionally, courts deciding whether they had “personal jurisdiction” over a defendant focused on the defendant’s physical location. Shipping or mailing things across state lines complicated this picture a little, but it was still possible to ask whether the defendant physically sent his magazine or newspaper into a state. Because publishing something on paper has a non-trivial cost, it was reasonable to assume a publication sent into another state was sent in a manner that ensured at least some people in that other state read it. If you intentionally published defamatory material in Minnesota, the law allowed that you could be sued in Minnesota even if you had never traveled here.

Internet postings introduced a new problem. It now became possible to publish – at essentially no cost – a statement that could be read anywhere by anyone.

Internet postings introduced a new problem. It now became possible to publish – at essentially no cost – a statement that could be read anywhere by anyone. If a Florida resident created an inflammatory blog post about a Minnesota resident, web users could read it in Minnesota or any other state without the Florida resident ever physically travelling or sending anything outside Florida.

Yet the possibility of readership for an internet publication does not create the same likelihood of actual readership that was associated with a pre-internet paper publication. It may be that only two people ever read our hypothetical Florida internet author’s venting of his spleen: the Minnesota target of his post (who perhaps found the offending content through a Google search for her own name) and the blogger himself. Can the blogger nevertheless be sued for defamation anywhere in the country, simply because his post is accessible online anywhere in the country? If so, the traditional law of personal jurisdiction has vanished, at least with respect to internet defamation claims.


1 Griffis v. Luban, 646 N.W.2d 527 (Minn. 2002); Newman-Lakka Cancer Foundation v. Briggs, No. A15-1217, 2016 WL 854776 (Minn. Ct. App. March 7, 2016), review denied May 31, 2016; Trivedi LLC v. Lang, No. A13-2087, 2014 WL 2807981 *3-6 (Minn. Ct. App. June 23, 2014).
2 More precisely, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a court from exercising jurisdiction over a defendant unless the defendant has “certain minimum contacts” with that state, “such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’” Int.’l Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (quoting Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U.S. 457, 463 (1940). “[M]inimum contacts” are judged based on “the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.” Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 204 (1977).


Tabloid Precedent

The starting point for questions of personal jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants in defamation lawsuits is Calder v. Jones, a 1984 United States Supreme Court decision in a case involving the National Enquirer.3 An entertainer filed suit in California against two authors who lived in Florida, based on the authors’ National Enquirer article physically published in California. The Supreme Court concluded the authors could be sued in California because the lawsuit “concerned the California activities of a California resident,” “impugned the professionalism of an entertainer whose television career was centered in California,” and “was drawn from California sources,” and because “the brunt of the harm . . . was suffered in California.”4 The “‘effects’ of [the authors’] Florida conduct in California” made it appropriate to file suit in California.5

The outcome of Calder suggests our hypothetical Florida blogger could be sued anywhere that someone mentioned in his inflammatory blog post lived and felt the “effects” of the post on his or her reputation. But the explanation given in Calder complicates that simple conclusion. The Court noted that the actions of the defendant authors “were expressly aimed at California,” since the authors knew the subject of the article lived in California and since California was the state in which the National Enquirer had the largest circulation.6 That is, the Court apparently found it significant that the defendants’ conduct was “calculated to cause injury” in California,7 which suggests that an author may not be sued for defamation in another state if the author’s conduct was not “calculated to cause injury” there.

Internet Defamation, With the Defendant Located in Minnesota

Calder’s principles have been applied to internet publications. In Griffis v. Luban, the Minnesota Supreme Court relied upon Calder to conclude a Minnesota resident could not be sued in Alabama for allegedly defamatory statements made online.8 Katherine Griffis taught non-credit courses about ancient Egypt at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Marianne Luban was a Minnesota resident with a nonprofessional interest in ancient Egypt. Griffis and Luban became involved in a dispute on an internet newsgroup related to ancient Egypt, and Luban challenged Griffis’s expertise, saying among other things that Griffis obtained her degree from a “box of Cracker Jacks.”9

Griffis sued Luban for defamation in Alabama and won a default judgment after Luban chose not to defend against the suit. When Griffis tried to enforce the default judgment in Minnesota, Luban argued the Alabama court had no personal jurisdiction to enter the judgment against her, since Luban was a Minnesota resident. In response, Griffis argued that under Calder jurisdiction over Luban in Alabama was appropriate.10

The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that Calder required “more than mere effects” in Alabama for Alabama to have jurisdiction over Luban.11 The Minnesota justices adopted the conclusion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that Calder establishes a three-part test for personal jurisdiction. Under Calder, this test says, the plaintiff must show “(1) the defendant committed an intentional tort; (2) the plaintiff felt the brunt of the harm caused by that tort in the forum such that the forum state was the focal point of the plaintiff’s injury; and (3) the defendant expressly aimed the tortious conduct at the forum such that the forum state was the focal point of the tortious activity.” 12


3 465 U.S. 783 (1984).
4 Id. at 788-89.
5 Id. at 789.
6 Id. at 789-90, 785.
7 Id. at 791.
8 Griffis v. Luban, 646 N.W.2d 527 (Minn. 2002).
9 Id. at 530.
10 Id. at 530-31.
11 See id. at 533.
12 Id. at 534 (citing Imo Indus. v. Kiekert AG, 155 F.3d 254, 265-66 (3d Cir. 1998)).


A plaintiff who alleges internet defamation automatically satisfies the first part of this test, alleging an intentional tort. If the plaintiff files the lawsuit in his or her home state, he or she almost certainly satisfies the second part of the test, since the plaintiff is likely to feel the effects of defamation through a decrease in reputation among others living in the plaintiff’s community. In the context of internet defamation, then, the Minnesota Supreme Court’s holding in Griffis boils down to the third part of the test: can the plaintiff show the defendant “expressly aimed the tortious conduct” at the plaintiff’s home state?

Can Minnesota residents rest assured they may not be sued in other states for defamation, for statements published on the internet? Not exactly.

In Griffis the Court decided that the plaintiff failed to show conduct expressly aimed at Alabama.13 It explained that Luban’s allegedly defamatory statements posted online were “intentionally directed at Griffis,” but not “‘expressly aimed’ at the state of Alabama.” The internet newsgroup on which Luban posted the allegedly defamatory comments was related to archeology and Egyptology, not Alabama. Griffis did not present any evidence that “any other person in Alabama read the statements.” And Griffis did not show that Alabama has a “unique relationship with the field of Egyptology.” Because the readers of the newsgroup “most likely would be spread all around the country,” Griffis failed to show that Luban’s statements were aimed at Alabama. “The mere fact that Luban knew that Griffis resided and worked in Alabama is not sufficient to extend personal jurisdiction over Luban in Alabama, because that knowledge does not demonstrate targeting of Alabama as the focal point of the allegedly defamatory statements.”14

Interestingly, one result of Griffis was that statements posted on the internet and available to all the world (thus, arguably, the most damaging kind of statements) were not actionable in Alabama where the plaintiff lived – precisely because the statements were available all over the world and not only in Alabama.

Internet Defamation, With the Plaintiff Located in Minnesota

Griffis and a subsequent Minnesota Court of Appeals decision in 201415 interpreted Calder and the personal jurisdiction rule to benefit Minnesota defendants, at the expense of out-of-state plaintiffs who filed lawsuits in Alabama and Arizona. In both cases, the courts held that a Minnesota defendant could not be sued in another state because his allegedly defamatory internet comments were not “expressly aimed” at the other state.

In 2016, the Minnesota Court of Appeals applied Griffis in a case where the shoe was on the other foot – the plaintiff was in Minnesota and the defendant was out of state. In Newman-Lakka Cancer Foundation v. Briggs, a Minnesota plaintiff tried to sue a Massachusetts defendant in a Minnesota court, for internet defamation.16

The Newman-Lakka Cancer Foundation was a Minnesota nonprofit corporation that supported cancer research by raising funds and providing grants to researchers. Christine Briggs lived in Massachusetts and worked for a medical research facility. After Briggs’s employment was terminated, she began posting statements on her public Facebook account and her public Twitter feed accusing her former employer and Newman-Lakka of financial mismanagement and misappropriation of cancer research funds. Newman-Lakka filed a defamation lawsuit against Briggs in Minnesota, which the trial judge dismissed on the basis that the Minnesota court lacked personal jurisdiction over Briggs. Newman-Lakka appealed.17

After considering Calder and Griffis, the Minnesota Court of Appeals concluded that Newman-Lakka could not sue Briggs in Minnesota because there was “no evidence” that Briggs’s “Facebook and Twitter posts were directed at Minnesota.”18 There was also no evidence that “Minnesota residents other than Mr. Newman read” the allegedly defamatory materials, and the court found unpersuasive Newman-Lakka’s argument that the subject matter of the Facebook and Twitter posts made it “more likely that the Minnesota donor base read these posts than other members of the general public.”19 The Court of Appeals’s opinion suggested that Minnesota might have jurisdiction over Briggs if there were “specific claims or evidence tending to show that Minnesota residents saw the posts” or that Briggs “directed her social-media posts at a Minnesota resident,” but those factors were not present.20

Interestingly, one result of Griffis was that statements posted on the internet and available to all the world (thus, arguably, the most damaging kind of statements) were not actionable in Alabama where the plaintiff lived – precisely because the statements were available all over the world and not only in Alabama.

Newman-Lakka thus appears to indicate that in the context of personal jurisdiction for internet defamation claims, Minnesota courts will hold Minnesota plaintiffs to the same standard they apply to plaintiffs from other states. To sue an out-of-state defendant, a Minnesota resident must show the defendant “expressly aimed” the alleged defamation at Minnesota. It is not enough to show that the defendant posted the alleged defamation on a site that was merely accessible to people in Minnesota, or that the plaintiff read the alleged defamation while in Minnesota.


13 Id. at 535.
14 Id. at 536.
15 Trivedi LLC v. Lang, no. A13-2087, 2014 WL 2807981 *3-6 (Minn. Ct. App. June 23, 2014) (affirming vacation of Arizona judgment due to lack of personal jurisdiction, where Arizona plaintiff sued Minnesota defendant in Arizona for alleged defamatory comments posted on internet blogs).
16 Newman-Lakka Cancer Foundation v. Briggs, no. A15-1217, 2016 WL 854776 (Minn. Ct. App. March 7, 2016).
17 Id. at *1-2.
18 Id. at *5.
19 Id.
20 Id.


Other States, Other Risks

Courts in other states have reached conclusions about the meaning of Calder similar to the Minnesota courts. As noted above, Griffis itself adopted its test from a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.21 State or federal courts in California,22 Virginia,23 Massachusetts,24 and other states have similarly refused to allow lawsuits alleging internet defamation to proceed against nonresidents.

In light of Griffis, Newman-Lakka, and these other decisions, can Minnesota residents rest assured they may not be sued in other states for defamation, for statements published on the internet? Not exactly.

As Calder suggests, certain facts may allow a defamation lawsuit based on internet statements to proceed against a nonresident of the state where the lawsuit was filed. If defamatory comments are “directed at” or “expressly aimed” at another state, the author may be subject to personal jurisdiction there. Indeed, on some occasions courts have allowed internet defamation lawsuits to proceed against out-of-state defendants.25 It is arguable whether these decisions are contrary to the Minnesota rule established in Griffis or whether they merely apply similar principles to distinguishable facts – meaning a Minnesota court might reach the same conclusion if confronted by the right circumstances.

For example, in Kauffman Racing Equip. v. Roberts, the out-of-state defendant made allegedly defamatory internet statements in a plainly intentional effort to inflict harm upon on Ohio business. The defendant was a disgruntled former customer who stated in other internet postings, “Again, this is not to get a resolution. I have a much bigger and dastardly plan than that and this is the perfect place to start . . .” and “But don’t worry about that. What I loose [sic] in dollars I will make up in entertainment at their expence [sic].”26 Noting that the business subsequently received inquiries from at least five Ohio residents who read the defendant’s postings, and that the defendant had engaged in commercial transactions with the business, the Ohio Supreme Court allowed the business to bring suit in Ohio against the out-of-state defendant.27

Two other examples: in Goldhaber v. Kohlenberg, the out-of-state defendant made allegedly defamatory internet statements that specifically referenced the municipality of the plaintiffs, the municipality’s police department, and the address of the plaintiffs’ neighbors. The New Jersey courts allowed the plaintiffs to sue the defendant in New Jersey.28 And in Atkinson v. McLaughlin, the out-of-state defendants admitted that they intended by their internet statements to stir up debate among North Dakota residents who were the primary source of donations to the plaintiffs’ organization. A federal court allowed the plaintiffs to sue the defendants in North Dakota for defamation, concluding the defendants had “deliberately and knowingly targeted North Dakota.”29

In both Griffis and Newman-Lakka, the appellate courts mentioned there was no evidence anyone in the plaintiff’s home state, aside from the plaintiff, actually read the allegedly defamatory internet statements.30 Thus there remains the possibility that a Minnesota court could rule it permissible to sue an out-of-state defendant for internet defamation if the plaintiff provided evidence the defamatory statements were read by other people in the plaintiff’s home state.31

Conclusion

In Newman-Lakka the Minnesota Court of Appeals confirmed that the same Calder and Griffis personal jurisdiction rules that protect Minnesota residents from being sued in other states for internet defamation also protect residents of other states from being sued in Minnesota for internet defamation. Calder and Griffis are not absolute, however, and it remains possible that internet authors who expressly aim their comments at another state, or who attract readers in another state, could find themselves subject to a lawsuit for defamation in a court far from home.


Joseph Pull is an attorney at Briol & Associates, PLLC in Minneapolis, where the financial and commercial litigation practice occasionally includes defamation claims.


21 See Griffis, 646 N.W.2d at 534-35.
22 Burdick v. Superior Court, 233 Cal. App. 4th 8, 27 (2015).
23 Knight v. Doe, no. 10-CV-887, 2011 WL 2471543, *3 (E.D. Va. June 21, 2011).
24 BroadVoice, Inc. v. TP Innovations LLC, 733 F.Supp.2d 219, 221-22 (D.Mass. 2010).
25 E.g. Kauffman Racing Equip., L.L.C. v. Roberts, 930 N.E.2d 784, 795-96 (Ohio 2010); Goldhaber v. Kohlenberg, 928 A.2d 948, 953 (N.J. App. 2007); Atkinson v. McLaughlin, 343 F. Supp. 2d 868, 877-78 (D. N.D. 2004).
26 Kauffman Racing Equip., 930 N.E.2d at 788.
27 Id. at 795-96.
28 Goldhaber, 928 A.2d at 953.
29 Atkinson, 343 F. Supp. 2d at 877-78.
30 See Griffis, 646 N.W.2d at 536; Newman-Lakka, 2016 WL 854776 *5.
31 Cf. Lorix v. Crompton Corp., 680 N.W.2d 574 (Minn. Ct. App. 2004) (corporation not subject to suit in Minnesota merely because it maintained an interactive website, where there was no evidence that Minnesota residents accessed the website or the website targeted Minnesota residents).