Archive | July, 2012

High School Students, Alumni Face Repercussions for Twitter Account

24 Jul

On July 20, the Student Press Law Center had an interesting report on a Twitter account set up by several students and recent graduates of Worthington High School to gossip about classmates. According to the report, Worthington police said the creators of the account could face charges including terroristic threats, harassment and libel, in addition to discipline from the school. The SPLC has some great commentary on the limits of these potential disciplinary threats. Additional information is available at the Worthington Daily Globe.


Dead Mom’s Family Members Lawyer Up.

24 Jul

According to a July 16 story in the Pioneer Press, the survivors of Toni Medrano have hired an attorney to negotiate some sort of settlement or initiate a lawsuit with television network CNN and commentator Nancy Grace. The PiPress reported that Medrano allegedly drank a fifth of vodka before falling asleep and smothering her baby in November 2011. Medrano was subsequently charged with two counts of second-degree manslaughter. On a segment of the “Nancy Grace” television show on June 11, 2012, Medrano was ridiculed and dubbed “the vodka mom,” and on July 2, Medrano reportedly poured a flammable liquid over herself and lighted it, and later died of her injuries. Medrano’s family apparently blames Nancy Grace and CNN for Medrano’s death and hopes to be compensated by the network.






Court of Appeals Revisits the Role of Subcontractors under the MGDPA

23 Jul

On July 10, the Associated Press previewed an oral argument that took place before the Minnesota Court of Appeals on July 11, pertaining to a case between The Timberjay, a newspaper based in Ely, Minnesota, and Johnson Controls, Inc. The newspaper is seeking a copy of a subcontract Johnson Controls made with Architectural Resources, Inc., a Minnesota architectural and engineering firm. The crux of the case is whether a portion of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, Minn. Stat. 13.05 subd. 11, applies to the subcontract in question. The statute provides, in part:


“If a government entity enters into a contract with a private person to perform any of its functions, the government entity shall include in the contract terms that make it clear that all of the data created, collected, received, stored, used, maintained, or disseminated by the private person in performing those functions is subject to the requirements of this chapter and that the private person must comply with those requirements as if it were a government entity.”


An initial administrative hearing resulted in a victory for Johnson, but the decision was subsequently reversed by a chief administrative law judge. The matter was then appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. For more background on the case, see this excellent 2011 entry in Media Law Minnesota.

Minnesota Supreme Court: Locked Courtroom Didn’t Violate Right to Public Trial

23 Jul

I apologize for the lateness of this post.

Back on July 3, the Minnesota Supreme Court held, among other things, that locking the courtroom doors during jury instructions didn’t violate the accused’s  right to a public trial.

The appeal arose from the case of Jerrell Brown, who was convicted in 2010 of aiding and abetting first-degree murder for the benefit of a gang and sentenced to life in prison. The Supreme Court relayed the courtroom closure, instigated by the now-retired Hennepin County Judge Warren R. Sagstuen, as follows:


“Following closing arguments but before giving jury instructions, the trial court ordered that the courtroom door be locked for the duration of jury instructions. In explaining the situation, the judge stated on the record:

‘For the benefit of those in the back. I am about to begin giving jury instructions. While that is going on the courtroom is going to be locked and people are not going to be allowed to go in and out.
So, if anybody has to leave, now would be the time. You are welcome to s[t]ay. But I just want to make sure that everybody knows that the courtroom is going to be locked. We are all good? Deputy?’

Once the courtroom door was locked, no spectators were let in or out during the jury instructions, but no spectators who were in the courtroom at the time jury instructions began were forced to leave. At the close of the instructions, the trial court handed out copies of the jury instructions and sent the jury to deliberate.”


In his majority opinion, Page wrote that “Both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6, of the Minnesota Constitution provide that ‘the accused shall enjoy the right to a . . . public trial,'” but that since the courtroom was never cleared of all spectators, and because the trial remained open to the public and press already in the courtroom, and because “the jury instructions did not comprise a proportionately large portion of the trial proceedings,” the closure was not Constitutionally significant.

Page tempered his opinion by stating that trial courts should utilize court closure “carefully and sparingly.”

In a dissent that was joined by Justice Paul H. Anderson, Justice Helen Meyer disagreed with the majority on the closure, stating that “the trial court’s decision to close and lock the courtroom doors during jury instructions contravened the purposes of the public trial guarantee” and justified greater scrutiny than was undertaken by the majority. Justice Meyer cited United States Supreme Court precedence in stating that “The right to a public trial is not only for the accused, but also the public and the press, and is a fundamental part of Anglo-American jurisprudence.”

The opinion can be found here. MPR’s Bob Collins gives a short recap here.

Monday Morsels

2 Jul

A couple more interesting stories rumbling around Minnesota today:

The Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal linked to a story the Star Tribune ran a few days ago (which I somehow missed, sorry), about so-called trademark bullying involving some Minnesota companies. The story raises interesting issues about the intersection of intellectual property and free speech, as well as the practical costs to small businesses seeking to defend their Constitutional liberties.

Meanwhile, Professor Howard Friedman’s excellent Religion Clause blog published a fantastic summary of the controversy surrounding Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s decision to rename the proposed marriage amendment and the subsequent outrage from the amendment’s proponents.

Court of Appeals Roundup

2 Jul

The Minnesota Court of Appeals issued two unpublished opinions that included some speech related tidbits today.

In In the Matter of the Professional Engineering License Application of Michael P. Opela, Sr., Michael Opela appealed an administrative decision denying his application for state licensure as a professional engineer. As part of his appeal, he requested that the court “seal his application and the record of the administrative proceedings to protect his privacy and reputation.” The Court of Appeals declined to seal the record in the case, citing portions of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and stating that “Case records on appeal are presumed public, absent several enumerated exceptions that are not applicable here.” Score one for public access to court records, albeit at the expense of Mr. Opela.

In  Timothy Jirak v. Philip Eichten, et al., an intra-family estate dispute, the court upheld, among other things, the plaintiff’s claim of defamation per se. The district court awarded the plaintiff $120,000. The bright side, for adamant free speech supporters, would be that the court declined to award  attorneys’ fees or punitive damages. The Court of Appeals cited Minn. Stat. 549.20, which states that punitive damages are permitted “only upon clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the defendant show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.”