MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Supreme Court, ruling in a Cullman County defamation case with broad implications for government officials, has said the speech of county commissioners is fully protected from libel suits only during strictly defined official meetings.
Ruling unanimously, the court said commissioners' remarks must be made during "officially conducted meetings and hearings" of a commission and its committees to be exempt from libel laws. Remarks made at meetings "not controlled in any way" by the county commission could be libelous, the justices said.
The Nov. 10 ruling will allow J.M. "Mike" Hillman to pursue his suit against Cullman County Commissioner Stanley Yarbrough, the commission and news organizations for remarks Yarbrough made to a meeting of the Cullman County Parks and Recreation Board on Nov. 25, 2003.
Yarbrough asked the board to consider removing Hillman from his position as consulting engineer on a board project, saying in part there had been "tremendous trouble working with him." Yarbrough's comments were quoted in a story in The Cullman Times.
Hillman's suit, which also named the Cullman paper and Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. as defendants, was thrown out by the trial court after initial arguments.
But Hillman appealed, and the state high court agreed with his argument that it was not shown before the trial court that Yarbrough's comments were absolutely privileged, or completely protected from libel suits.
The court did not rule on whether Yarbrough's comments to the county board were protected by the immunity law, but it said Hillman "could conceivably prove" that they were not.
The justices said Alabama courts have never definitively interpreted terms such as "legislative function" that apply when absolute immunity is provided. But the Alabama court said the U.S. Supreme Court has limited such privileged speech in Congress "to events transpiring on the floor of the House or the Senate or in committee hearings."
The Alabama justices said that standard should apply in their state as well.
Beverly Poston, a Cullman attorney representing Hillman, said yesterday that the Nov. 10 ruling makes clear that government officials are protected only in their official meetings as spelled out by the court.
"It is very defining," she said.
Bob Girardeau, a Birmingham attorney representing Yarbrough and the commission, was not immediately available for comment.