The Second District Appellate Court recently highlighted the strong protection Illinois law provides for statements by executive officers and members of local government boards and councils, including school boards, during regular meetings, even if the statements are not germane to matters before the public body. In Friedman v. Moore, the Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of a defamation suit by a Lake Forest resident against the City of Lake Forest and one of its aldermen. In so doing, the court emphasized the “absolute” in the absolute immunity that public officials and the public bodies they represent enjoy from tort liability for statements made in public meetings.
The suit alleged that certain comments the alderman made about the resident at a city council meeting were defamatory and retaliatory. At the meeting, the alderman read a statement suggesting that the resident unfairly delayed and attempted to prevent a neighbor from building a project on the neighbor’s land. The alderman described the resident’s actions as “unkind, relentless, and wasteful” and said “such righteous, self-serving actions are not in character with Lake Forest and damages all of us to some extent.”
Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals determined that the resident’s case could not proceed, because the alderman’s statements were protected by legislative immunity. Specifically, Illinois courts have uniformly recognized a privilege for statements made by executive officers and members of local government boards and councils at regular meetings. The court refused to carve out any exceptions to this broad protection, even for statements that are not germane to matters before the public body. The court noted that creating such exceptions would eviscerate the privilege.
The court’s decision is an important reminder of the strong protections that public officials enjoy when speaking in public meetings.