Supreme Court Adopts Absolute Privilege for Cabinet-Level State Officials in Defamation Suits

December 23, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously ruled today that cabinet-level state officials have absolute immunity from defamation claims for speech that arises out of the performance of their official duties.

Zoyle Jones, a former employee of the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC), sued the State for defamation and other claims after former TDOC Commissioner George Little spoke to the media about Jones’s demotion. The demotion was in the wake of allegations and investigations into Jones’s alleged improprieties in double-billing his travel to the State and a private organization. The Commissioner’s comments referenced two letters that he had sent to Jones about the double-billing controversy and the demotion.

The Tennessee Claims Commission dismissed Jones’s other legal claims, but did not dismiss the defamation claim.

In the appellate proceedings, the State contended that the Tennessee Supreme Court should adopt an absolute privilege, which provides complete immunity to a defendant for the alleged defamatory statements. Jones argued that the Court should rule that state officials have a weaker qualified privilege that may be overcome if the claimant presents evidence of ill will or malice.

The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously determined that a rule of absolute immunity should apply to cabinet-level state officials in defamation claims arising out of statements made while performing their official duties.

 Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon G. Lee explained that a rule of absolute immunity furthers two important policy considerations. First, an absolute privilege ensures that cabinet-level state officials can fulfill their important public duties free from the harassment of lawsuits. Second, an absolute privilege also furthers important free-expression principles, by allowing these state officials to inform the public about the functioning of government and other significant issues.

The Opinion goes on to say that in a constitutional democracy, the public has a right to receive information and ideas about the government and its public officials.

The Court noted that Commissioner Little, a member of the governor’s cabinet, was acting within the scope of his duties when he spoke about the content of his letters, which were public records, to members of the media. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Claims Commission and returned the case to them for further proceedings.

Read the Opinion in Zoyle Jones v. State of Tennessee, authored by Justice Lee.