HELENA - The Montana Supreme Court has ruled that statements legislators make during a floor session are protected speech, even if they could otherwise be considered defamatory.
The 7-0 ruling Thursday was the first time the Montana Supreme Court addressed the scope of the protection granted legislators by the state Constitution.
The ruling came in the case of a man who accused his neighbor, Republican Rep. Bill Glaser of Huntley, of standing up on the House floor and calling him a "kook," who had been committed to the state mental hospital and was imprisoned for threatening a military officer.
"Regardless of the truth of Glaser's statements, he made them on the floor of the House of Representatives while it was in session," wrote Justice Mike Wheat, a former state representative from Bozeman. "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."
Glaser's speech was a reaction to a letter that Robert Cooper had distributed at the Capitol describing his failed attempts to get the Yellowstone County commissioners to change the name of Squaw Creek Road, on which both men live. The letter noted that Glaser and Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, were among area residents who signed petitions to the commissioners opposing the name change.
Glaser's criticism, which did not directly mention Cooper, was made on March 5, 2009, during a "point of personal privilege," a procedure that allows a legislator to make personal comments on any subject while the legislature is in session.
Cooper filed a defamation lawsuit against Glaser in July 2009.
District Judge Kathy Seeley dismissed Cooper's lawsuit in October, citing a provision in the state Constitution that grants lawmakers immunity from legal actions over what they say in debates and speeches.
Cooper appealed, arguing that Glaser's speech didn't mention any legislative issues.
"A denouncement of (a) citizen which falsely portrays him as a criminal, insane and 'not an ordinary member of society,' would be criminal defamation under Montana law," Cooper argued in his brief.
He provided documents to Lee Newspapers of Montana showing he was honorably discharged from the military and a statement from the administrator of the Montana State Hospital saying no one with Cooper's name or date of birth had ever been a patient.
Justices William Leaphart, James Nelson and Patricia Cotter agreed with the ruling, but argued it should not be used to set precedent because Cooper acted as his own attorney.
"The case presents a significant issue of constitutional import; whether Article V, Section 8 of the Montana Constitution protects Glaser's gratuitous and allegedly defamatory remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives," Leaphart wrote.
Cooper did not have an attorney and his "research and briefing on the extent or limits of the constitutional immunity were less than thorough," Leaphart wrote. "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."