BOZEMAN, Mont. (CN) – Lawmakers’ remarks during a floor session are protected speech, the Montana Supreme Court ruled, dismissing a defamation lawsuit against Republican Rep. Bill Glaser.
The 7-0 ruling addressed, for the first time, the scope of protection afforded legislative speech by the state Constitution.
Glaser’s neighbor in Huntley, Mont., claimed the lawmaker called him a “kook” on the House floor, claimed he’d been committed to the state mental hospital and said he was imprisoned for threatening a military officer.
The neighbor, Robert Cooper, provided local newspapers with documents showing that he was honorably discharged from the military and that he’d never been a patient at the Montana State Hospital.
Glaser’s comments were in response to a letter Cooper distributed at the Capitol, describing Glaser’s opposition to his campaign to have the name changed of Squaw Creek Road, on which both men live.
The district court dismissed Cooper’s lawsuit in October, citing an immunity provision of the state Constitution that shields legislators from lawsuits over what they say on the floor.
The high court affirmed.
“Regardless of the truth of Glaser’s statements, he made them on the floor of the House of Representatives while it was in session,” Justice Mike Wheat wrote. “These are the precise circumstances under which legislators should be immune from the threat of prosecution. To hold otherwise would compromise the independence of the Legislature in expressing the will of the people it represents.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice William Leaphart cautioned against using the ruling to establish precedent when Cooper, who appealed pro se, lacked the benefit of an attorney’s research and briefing.
“I am reluctant to establish a precedent on such an important constitutional issue in the absence of adequate briefing on both sides of the issue presented,” Leaphart wrote.