Politicians Say the Darndest Things: Legislators Afforded Immunity

by , under 150 Self-Help, 306 Culture and Institutions

Defamation is the communication of a false statement that harms someone’s reputation, and a victim of defamation may be entitled to monetary damages. However, when an allegedly defamatory statement is made by a legislator in the course of their duties, the lawmaker is almost always immune from suit.

council meeting

Mummelgrummel [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case of Miller v. Wyatt, the defendant, a City of Crossville councilman, stated that the plaintiff “was discharged from City Manager up here because of misappropriating funds and not following procedure.” Maybe appropriately, this comment was made during a discussion involving an agenda item titled “Matters Relative to Political Ads.” Although the court indulges the readers’ curiosity by providing a short political history of the city—including the plaintiff’s own description of the mayor as “the most ethically challenged, ego-mani[a]cal, narcissistic election official” he had ever known—the issue in this case was whether Wyatt’s statement arose from the conduct of the governing body.

The common law concept of absolute immunity for legislative activities is well established and codified in the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, which provides in part that “All members of boards, commissions, agencies, authorities, and other governing bodies of any governmental entity . . . shall be immune from suit arising from the conduct of the affairs of such board, commission, agency, authority, or other governing body.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-201(b). The plaintiff argued that, although the comments admittedly took place in a city council meeting, Wyatt should not be immune from suit and should be liable because the discussion had centered on “electioneering and politics” as opposed to the protected topic of “affairs of government.”

The trial court and court of appeals, however, were “absolutely immune” to plaintiffs’ arguments and found that Wyatt’s statements arose from the conduct of the affairs of city council, falling within the scope of legislative function and protected under the law.

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