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Minnesota Order Banning "False or Defamatory Statements" Limited to Knowingly False And Defamatory Statements

So says the Minnesota Court of Appeals, as to a "harassment restraining order."

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The rest of the opinion is interesting, too; from State v. Bianco, decided this week by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Frisch (joined by Judges Johnson and Reyes):

Appellant Quintin Isaiah Bianco was formerly in a relationship with victim's daughter, who is under victim's guardianship. Victim petitioned for a harassment restraining order (HRO) following escalating incidents of harassment by Bianco. On August 17, 2018, the district court issued an HRO prohibiting Bianco from (1) harassing victim; (2) having direct or indirect contact with victim; or (3) "mak[ing] false or defamatory statements about [victim], including to the public, to [victim's] employer, or on-line."

Between February 10, 2019, and March 25, 2019, multiple posts containing various allegations about victim originated from Bianco's Facebook account. On March 25, 2019, Bianco called social services alleging that victim abused her daughter and denied her daughter medical care.

The state charged Bianco with violation of the HRO. Bianco entered into a plea agreement, and the district court held a plea hearing. At the hearing, the state attempted to elicit sworn testimony from Bianco to establish a factual basis for the offense. When Bianco denied certain facts, the district court took over questioning of Bianco, accepted his plea, and adjudicated him guilty. Bianco now appeals and seeks reversal of his conviction, arguing that the district court should not have accepted his guilty plea because the facts to which he admitted do not establish that he violated the HRO….

To be constitutionally valid [under Minnesota law], a guilty plea must be accurate, voluntary, and intelligent. A guilty plea is inaccurate if it is not supported by a proper factual basis…. When a defendant "makes statements that negate an essential element of the charged crime," the plea is inadequate "because such statements are inconsistent with a plea of guilty." …

Bianco argues that he did not admit to knowingly making false statements or prompting third-party contact by reporting victim to social services. The state responds that Bianco's report to social services violated the HRO's prohibition against direct or indirect contact with victim and making false statements.

At the plea hearing, Bianco testified that he called social services at the request of victim's daughter to report alleged abuse. Bianco maintained that he had reason to believe the allegations were true when he made the report.

We have never held that a report of alleged illegal activity may constitute indirect contact in violation of an HRO. Rather, such a report is presumptively valid when the report is objectively reasonable and made through the proper channels. To overcome the presumption, a district court must find that the defendant acted with an improper intent. Here, Bianco reported domestic and child abuse, implicating public-safety and child-welfare concerns. The plea colloquy does not establish that Bianco acted with improper intent, and the district court did not make such a finding. Accordingly, the testimony at the plea hearing did not establish that Bianco's report to social services amounted to indirect contact or a false statement in violation of the HRO….

The state next argues that Bianco admitted to posting false statements about victim on Facebook in violation of the HRO. The HRO prohibited Bianco from "mak[ing] false … statements about [victim], including to the public … or on-line." Bianco argues that, while he admitted to posting certain statements about victim on Facebook, he did not admit that he knew that any of those statements were false at the time he posted them. Bianco also references his testimony that his Facebook account was hacked and that he did not remember posting particular comments about victim…..

The transcript shows that—despite repeated efforts of the state and the district court to elicit a factual basis from Bianco to substantiate his guilty plea—Bianco clearly, expressly, and repeatedly denied posting statements that he knew to be false. Bianco denied authoring many of the posts. As to the posts that he admitted to writing, Bianco testified that his posts were based on what he believed to be truthful information.

Although Bianco admitted that he should not have posted statements on Facebook that he did not know to be true—and he further admitted that he was unaware whether some of the information was true at the time—such admissions do not amount to a violation of the HRO, which only prohibits Bianco from making "false or defamatory" statements….

{Citing State v. Winchell (Minn. 1985), the state argues that Bianco attempted to plead "not very guilty." But [t]here, the defendant admitted to the facts necessary to support his guilty plea, only challenging facts relevant to sentencing.}

The state alternatively argues that Bianco admitted to making defamatory statements about victim. While the HRO prohibits false or defamatory statements, Bianco did not admit to facts showing that he made defamatory statements. Criminal defamation requires knowledge of the false and defamatory character of the statement. See Minn. Stat. § 609.765, subd. 2 (2018) ("Whoever with knowledge of its false and defamatory character … communicates any false and defamatory matter to a third person … is guilty of criminal defamation …." (emphasis added)). As set forth herein, Bianco did not admit that he knew his statements were false at the time he made them.

Because Bianco did not admit the facts that establish a violation of the HRO, we reverse and remand to allow Bianco to withdraw his plea.