Court limits privilege for testimony in city council hearings
WISCONSIN–The Wisconsin Supreme Court decided in mid-January that people who make defamatory statements at city council hearings do not enjoy an absolute privilege against libel suits.
In an opinion written by Justice Jon Wilcox, the court held that those who speak at city council meetings are protected only conditionally. The privilege applies unless the statements are defamatory and unrelated to the matter being discussed at the meeting, or the speaker knew the allegations were false, the court held.
“[A] conditional privilege will adequately protect the witness, yet still afford an injured party the opportunity to secure redress in an action for defamation,” Wilcox wrote.
Concurring with the majority, Justice William Bablitch argued against absolute privilege.
“Free speech is not and should not be without its limits,” he wrote. “Newspapers, radio, television, even the tabloids, have limits. They cannot accuse anybody about anything without facing consequences for malicious untruths.”
In a dissent joined by two other justices, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley observed that Wisconsin law provided an absolute privilege to persons testifying in court or at legislative hearings. Thus, she wrote, the same standard of open debate should apply to city council meetings as well.
The court’s decision returned a libel suit filed by a Whitewater, Wisc., landlord to the lower court for trial to determine in part whether or not statements about him were protected by the conditional privilege.
Richard Vultaggio, the owner of some real estate in the vicinity of a middle school being discussed by the Whitewater City Council, sued Caryl Yasko in January 1995 after she appeared at an October 1994 council meeting and described some of his properties as “pig sties” and “slum property.”
Yasko argued that because her accusations against Vultaggio were made at a city council meeting, she was protected by either an absolute or a conditional privilege, but Judge Michael Gibbs refused to dismiss the suit.
Though the meeting was broadcast in its entirety by a local television station, Vultaggio did not sue the station. (Vultaggio v. Yasko; Defense Counsel: James Friedman, Madison)