NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · ALABAMA · Libel · Nov. 21, 2005
High court limits legislative immunity in defamation case
Nov. 21, 2005 · Alabama’s highest court ruled that government officials’ speech is protected from libel suits only in well-defined official meetings, allowing a libel suit to go forward against a county commissioner.
Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Robert Bernard Harwood Jr. wrote that the immunity does “not extend to all manner of events at which a local legislator is present.”
The suit arose from a Nov. 25, 2003, meeting of the Cullman County Parks and Recreation Board during which Cullman County Commissioner Stanley Yarbrough asked the board to consider firing J.M. Hillman, consulting engineer of a Cullman County renovation project. The remarks were printed in the local paper, The Cullman Times, and Hillman sued Yarbrough, the commission, the paper and its publisher for defamation.
The trial court dismissed Hillman’s claims in April 2005 finding that, among other issues, Yarbrough’s comments were protected from defamation claims under the Alabama Constitution, which allows for absolute legislative immunity for any speech or debate “made in the course of legislative or judicial proceedings.”
Hillman appealed, arguing among other things that Yarbrough’s comments were not shown to be privileged.
The high court looked a 2003 Alabama case involving legislative immunity, Butler v. Town of Argo, which ruled that “members of local legislative bodies . . . are absolutely privileged to publish matters concerning others if the publication is made during the performance of the members’ legislative duties . . . . The privilege, however, does not extend to public discussion outside of a legislative function . . . .”
In considering the scope legislative duties, the high court found that “the legislative function of a county commissioner such as Yarbrough is limited to attending officially conducted meetings and hearings of the Commission or its committees and casting votes at those meetings,” Harwood wrote. “Meetings not controlled in any way by the Commission do not fall within the scope of a legislative function protected by absolute legislative immunity.”
The court did not, however, find that Yarbrough was outside the legislative immunity. Instead, it reversed the trail court’s dismissal of the case by finding that Hillman could “conceivably prove a set of facts indicating that Yarbrough’s presence at the meeting of the Board was not a legislative function but rather a ‘public discussion outside of a legislative function.'”
(Hillman v. Yarbrough, Media Counsel: Robert Girardeau, Huie, Fernambucq & Stewart, Birmingham, Ala.) — CM